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Taste of Tuscany at Columbia Mall

Step into the Secolari shop at The Mall in Columbia, and you’ll feel as though you’re in a Tuscan farmhouse rather than a suburban shopping center.

The walls are lined with stainless-steel containers, called fusti, filled with 20 different olive oils and 14 types of vinegar and aged balsamic. There’s bread for sampling, along with other gourmet items proffered on rustic wooden tables designed by the store owners and made by a local lumber company.

Champagne mimosa vinegar, basil-flavored olive oil, pear ginger wasabi balsamic, blackberry with roasted pepper vinegar and blood orange olive oil are some of Secolari’s most unusual and popular flavors. The shop, which opened in late 2013, also sells pasta, spices, salts, rubs, flavored honey and tapenade.

“We try to gear our products to whatever the customer is looking for,” says Mary deRosa, who owns the business with her husband, Barth deRosa.

It’s the Clarksville couple’s second retail store. They opened their first shop in 2011 at Bethesda Row. Expanding to the Columbia mall was a natural fit since it’s close to their home, and the town’s affluent, educated community is a target audience for their products.

“These are people who are going to appreciate quality products,” Barth deRosa says.

The deRosas operated a kiosk at the mall from September 2012 to January 2013 and then “moved aggressively” with plans for a store when mall leaders announced expansion plans.

“We hit the ground running. A lot of people came from the kiosk and knew us by word of mouth,” Mary deRosa says.

Secolari is located along an open-air courtyard in the mall’s new 40,000-square-foot wing that will include two restaurants, Zoe’s Kitchen and Seasons 52, later this year. At 1,380 square feet, the Columbia Secolari is nearly twice the size of the Bethesda shop. Secolari employs 16 people between the two stores, although that number is likely to grow as the deRosas plan to begin selling their products online this year and to open a third Maryland store (the location of which has yet to be announced) in 2015.

According to Mary deRosa, 55, she and her husband wanted to start a business that could carry them to the “next phase” of their lives leading up to and following retirement. Barth deRosa, 58, a D.C.-based intellectual property and business lawyer, says he has no intention of giving up his law practice anytime soon. The couple’s four grown children, ages 20 to 32, help out with Secolari.

“We’re a true Mom and Pop,” Mary deRosa says of the venture.

Both Barth and Mary grew up on Long Island in families with Italian roots. Finding quality extra-virgin olive oil was de rigeur for their families, Barth says.

“My parents would go an hour out of their way to get this special olive oil,” he recalls.

Secolari means “age old” in Italian and was chosen as their shop’s name as a tribute to olive trees, which can live for thousands of years.

Despite the deRosas’ Italian heritage, the oils they sell hail from California.

The couple praises the California Olive Oil Council’s strict standards for certifying olive oils and, since the oils don’t have to travel as far as those that come from Italy or Spain, they are fresher. Once the products arrive at Secolari, the shop’s steel fusti tanks are designed to preserve the oils by keeping out light and air.

Overall production of California olive oil is growing, according to California Olive Oil Council Executive Director Patricia Darragh. California farms will produce 3.5 million gallons of olive oil this harvest season, which runs from October to January. That’s up from 2.4 million last year and 1.2 million the year prior.

Residents of the Northeast in particular have embraced olive oil from California as an alternative to European oil, Darragh says.

Barth deRosa is a board member of the council and attends its annual meeting in April to pick new olive oils to sell at Secolari. The deRosas also attend trade shows, including the Fancy Food Show and the Natural Products Expo, to keep up with industry trends.

The deRosas aim to add at least one new oil or vinegar at Secolari per quarter. This includes seasonal items like their winter ambrosia vinegar, made from apples, pears, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom.

Secolari’s oils and vinegars cost between $21 and $26 for a 375-milliliter bottle. Because their oils and vinegars are private label, the deRosas won’t share the names of the suppliers. As for their secondary products, such as Pappardelle’s Pasta and KG Bees honey, the deRosas source from small, independent producers who don’t sell their goods nationally.

“If someone can find these products at a Walmart or Amazon, we don’t want to carry it,” Barth deRosa says.

This year, Secolari will launch some new events, including cooking classes, fundraisers, and private events like anniversary and birthday dinners. The deRosas work with nonprofits, including Sister to Sister, to promote the health benefits of olive oil for heart health. 

“Small specialty food stores seem to be thriving,” Darragh says. “American consumers want to be more educated about the products that they’re buying.”

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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