August 20 – Happy Birthday Tony Filiberto

Tony Filberto working his magic behind Sansalone's meat counter.
Tony Filberto working his magic behind Sansalone’s meat counter.
Mary Filiberto, a West End classic
Mary Filiberto, a West End classic

The neighborhood grocery store was an Amsterdam community mainstay for generations until the big box supermarkets and proliferation of automobiles and multi-car families forced them into extinction. But they fought a good, long and valiant fight here in the Rug City, largely because of the strong personalities of their ownership and the strong relationships those owners built with their customer base. A classic example was Sansalone’s, the former West Main Street market that was last managed by today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant and his wife Mary.

The business was first opened in the late 1930’s by Joe Sansalone, a native of Pisciotta, Italy and his wife Theresa. Theresa kept it going for awhile after Joe died in 1961 but she needed the help of her daughters Rae and Mary to do so. Since both of the Sansalone sisters were also married with three children each of their own, it was pretty clear someone had to step in and run the place full time. That someone turned out to be Mary’s husband Tony Filiberto, who up till then had worked as both an independent carpenter and as a multi-skilled on-the-road repairman for Sears & Roebuck. Born in Amsterdam on August 20, 1927, he also had plenty of grocery and meat cutting experience because at the time he married Mary Sansalone back on Flag Day in 1947, he had worked for his new father-in-law Joe, helping him operate the store.

Tony proved to be a perfect choice. He was a bull of a worker, had a great sense of humor, learned to become an outstanding butcher and could deal effectively with every sort of personality that walked through that market’s front door. Whether you were buying two pounds of his exquisite Italian sausage, a half-pound of baloney sliced thin or a bunch of steaks for a weekend barbecue, Tony consistently had what you needed. He would also carry on a full and detailed conversation with you while he cut, chopped or sliced your order, weighed it, wrapped it in paper, wrote the price on the package and handed it to you with a smile, while sticking his writing utensil back behind his ear. Meanwhile his wife Mary worked the cash register with a young assistant constantly at her side who she’d send throughout the store to get this or that for a customer, while she and whoever that patron happened to be discussed much more important things.

sansalone2Which brings me to Sansalone’s other important function. It was more than just a place to buy the food your family ate. The store was also one of the nerve centers for West End news and gossip. If you lived in that section of town and you wanted to find out who died, who was sick, who had a baby, who lost their job, who got a new job, who was drunk in Russo’s last night, who so and so was having an affair with, who bought a new car, or how much someone lost playing cards at St. Agnello that Friday, you didn’t buy a Recorder. Instead, you just went to Sansalone’s.

That place did an amazing volume of business for a store its size and it wasn’t just people from the West End who shopped there. You could run into just about anyone in the City when you visited that market. Each Christmas, I would give my employees their choice of a ham or prime rib and we would always order them from Sansalone’s. My staff loved their stuff!

While several of Amsterdam’s neighborhood grocery stores closed their doors for good by the late 1980’s (in the West End these closings included Califano’s, Boice’s, Andy’s, and Fusella’s) Sansalone’s continued to thrive and then Mary Filberto suddenly died in February of 1988. She was just 60 years old at the time. It was a crushing blow for Tony and their three children and the store never recovered from her loss. Tony eventually retired and he too passed away in 2001, at the age of 74.

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