Teresa Parisi is busy trying to get me to eat really good things – really good Italian things.
“I’ve turned into my mother,” she laughs as she amps up the New York accent a notch, “Let me feed you, let me feed you!” She’s behind the counter on the market side of Wren pulling out the goodies: rare cheeses, roasted Roma tomatoes and green Spanish olives, offering up combinations of savory delights piled atop slices of crusty artisanal bread for me to sample. I love my job.
“Taste this cheese. You won’t believe this cheese,” she says with the kind of focused candor only a real cheese lover can muster over a hunk of aged dairy. I do and I don’t. She’s right. “That’s the aged Crotonese (the pronunciation is something like Crow-toe-Nay-zee), Calabrese sheep’s cheese.” Her inflection is New York Italian-American-by-way-of-Westchester. “If I could find a man like this cheese,” she gives me a knowing look, “I’d date again.”
About five years ago (and a couple of blocks up Carteret) the lifelong New Yorker wandered into the old store to check out the merchandise while pondering a permanent move to the Lowcountry. “I’m not saying I bought the house because of that,” she says, “But I felt a lot more comfortable ‘cause I knew where I could eat.” And eventually work. After years of selling “high end footwear” in New York, Parisi hired on with no real culinary experience. What she did have was a load of personality, a passion for good food and wine and a commitment to her customers born out of her sales experience. She still keeps a dog-eared copy of Steven Jenkins’ Cheese Primer behind the display cases and a phenomenal selection of cheeses and baked goods within.
The market side of Wren is – like every thing else – a trilogy: equal parts deli, bakery and wine shop. The big blackboard over the counter displays the day’s fresh baked goods, most from local baker, Susan Zara. Today eight varieties of cakes are available. Satisfy your sweet tooth with chocolate raspberry ganache, chocolate chip banana or something called orange sunshine layer cake which manages to look extremely decadent and yet somehow bright and, well, sunshiny all at once. “Have you tried the coconut cake?” asks Parisi. “Half the town is hooked. Even people who don’t like coconut cake love this cake.” Come to think of it, I don’t like coconut cake, and yet there it sits in the case looking somehow delicious. Did it just whisper to me?
There are also cheesecakes of various and insidious levels of temptation, fruit tarts and rich, decadent tortes (chocolate oblivion!). “Every once in a while I still order tiramisu from Italy,” she confesses. “I can’t get my mother’s, so I get the next best thing.”
The savory side of the counter is equally impressive with all manner of olives, peppers, mushrooms and onions, roasted, pickled and marinated in olive oil. The roasted Roma tomatoes are a deep, rich crimson and bursting with flavor. I’m pretty sure my cholesterol levels spiked just looking at the Mousse Truffee (truffle mousse) and the Pate de Campagne. But for this turophiliac, the cheese is the thing, and this is an uncommonly distinctive international selection. The Fleur Vert is a French chevre (goat cheese) encrusted in a fragrant coat of thyme, tarragon and juniper berries. The Huntsman – a personal favorite and damned hard to find – a prime example of English cheese love in duplicate: rich double Gloucester Cheddar layered over and around distinctively robust Blue Stilton. The Cahill Porter Cheddar hails from Ireland’s County Limerick, its complex “marbeling” comes from a blending of Guiness Stout, while California’s Bandaged Cheddar is the only American cheese to claim a first in the World Cheese Awards in London.
There’s sure to be a bottle of wine to pair with whatever you select. Each bottle is chosen with care. “There’s not a dud in here,” says Parisi. “Somebody likes every bottle. And we fight for what we like.” And if you don’t see something you like, maybe want something you can’t find, just ask. The customer still comes first here.
“They are the backbone,” she says. “I imagine my customers out on their terrace with my food and my wine. All they need are their friends; they’ll have a good time. Food should be fun. Have a party.”