June 16, 2015 – People used to line up, tourists and locals side by side at the counter, to order fresh-made sandwiches, composed salads, and deli meats sliced to order. We’d wander the aisles, choosing house-made cookies, European chocolates, exotic olives, local and regional wines, and other indulgences. Then we’d walk across the street and disappear into Devendorf Park, or follow Ocean Avenue down to the sand for a picnic. We’d peel back the white paper wrapped round each purchase, and share.
This was the Mediterranean Market, an institution in the old milk bottle-shaped Carmel Dairy building at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Mission Street. Today, the building remains and is still under the auspices of early owners, the Coniglios, whose family is rooted in the Monterey Peninsula heritage of Sicilian fishermen and foodies. (For more on Monterey’s Sicilian heritage see chef John Cox’s story Remembering Spaghetti Hill in the summer issue of EMB)
But the Med Market, which was established in 1950, closed in 2002. And with it went a widespread tradition.
“At the end of the day, we found we could make more money renting out the building than selling sandwiches,” says Coniglio daughter Tiana Lagemann. “Trader Joe’s had come in, and then Whole Foods—they’re not the Med Market, but they caught the attention of our customers. So, we decided to take a hiatus, a little break.”
Thirteen years later, tastes have shifted. People appreciate home cooking and house-made specialties from family recipes, as well as fresh, local fare from sustainable sources, and a place to hang out where everybody knows your name. Or wants to. Lagemann and her mother, Cara Mia Coniglio, are thinking the Mediterranean Market may need to make a comeback in the city by the sea.
First, they decided to test the waters. The mother-daughter duo established Loco Coco, a local catering company, as a way to get the family food back into the community.
“My dad’s from Hawaii and my mom spent a lot of time there,” says Lagemann. “Loco Coco sounded kind of Hawaiian, like you’d see it on a food truck, which would be ideal but isn’t easy to do here. My mom makes killer chicken teriyaki and barbecued rice balls, as well as Italian food and Asian coleslaw. Anything she makes is amazing. You could absolutely hate something, but you’d love my mom’s version. We just needed to get her food out there again.”
The name also suggests “local cooking,” which is exactly what Lagemann and Coniglio are bringing back to the community.
Lagemann wasn’t quite sure how her mother became such an exceptional, intuitive cook, except to assume the skill had been passed down from her great grandparents to her grandparents, to her mom. But then her mother quietly reminded her of the Betty Crocker Children’s Cookbook she had received from her godmother when she was 9 years old. And she told her daughter she had made every single recipe in the book. One recipe, the “Jolly Breakfast Ring,” became a long-standing family tradition.
Admittedly, says Lagemann, her mom has evolved from the Jolly Breakfast Ring to make her more sophisticated brioche bread pudding for the family. And Loco Coco has been a wonderful way for Coniglio to continue to cook for others.
“By getting into catering,” says Lagemann, “we knew we could get the food out there again, observe people’s response to it and see if they still like it, without opening a fixed location yet. Because the food is first; it starts with fabulous food.”
A wide range of people, they found, still love her food. The duo recently hosted a couple of pop-up dinners, both of which, says Lagemann, sold out. At the first, they served antipasto, pork loin, wild mushroom lasagna, and triple-chocolate brownies. The second was a spaghetti dinner to raise funds for photographer Rachel Short, a family friend, who was seriously injured in an automobile accident. “No one,” says Lagemann, “makes Italian food like Cara Mia Coniglio.”
The next step in pursuing the possible return of the Mediterranean Market is a cookbook Lagemann and Coniglio are creating, using great-grandmother Mary Coniglio’s legendary recipes.
“Whether we get the old building back in action or start with something smaller nearby,” says Lagemann, “everybody seems to want us back in town, and everybody seems to have their own story about the Med Market. I’d love to pair my great-grandmother’s recipes with my mom’s; to mix old school with new school, and call it ‘Med Market.’ I’m picturing a Gayle’s Bakery [Capitola] kind of place with all different kinds of cuisine from the Coniglio family.” Cousin Jason Coniglio owns My Attic bar on Alvarado St. in Monterey and Tiana says he is supportive, but doesn’t plan to get involved at this point, adding “you never know.”
While we may have to wait a year or two, chances are “everybody” will be lined up, once again, to gather their white paper-wrapped packages from the Med Market. Turns out you can come home again, particularly where there’s a home-cooked meal waiting.
A fifth-generation Northern Californian, Lisa Crawford Watson has enjoyed a diverse career in business, education and writing. She lives with her family on the Monterey Peninsula, where her grandmother once lived and wrote. An adjunct writing instructor for CSU Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College, Lisa is also a free-lance writer, who specializes in the genres of art & architecture, health & lifestyle, food & wine. She has published various books and thousands of feature articles and columns in local and national newspapers and magazines.