That’s Amore

A love letter to Alberta's Italian Centre Shop

T&C Eye Candy / Italian Centre Shop general manager Gino Marghella talks cheese with an appreciative customer / Photo by Toque & Canoe

By Valerie Berenyi

For the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to go on self-guided cycling tours of one of my favourite places on the planet: Italy, which I’ve visited five times.

Six of us friends bicycled Puglia’s quiet back roads — stopping to swim in silky seas, commune with ancient olive trees, meet expressive people, revel in astonishing art and indulge in legendary cuisine.

At times, especially when spring in Canada is late or winter arrives early, I ache for Italy’s many pleasures: its warmth, its slower pace and its sweet life, which is lived largely outdoors.

And because Italy isn’t in the cards this year, I need to feed my Italophilia in other ways.

Happily, there’s a place in Calgary that I visit when I want to extend the vibe of an Italian vacation, get a shot of la dolce vita along with a cappuccino and pick up staples like good olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Parmesan cheese and canned plum tomatoes.

Like many Canadian communities, my city’s been enriched by large numbers of Italian immigrants who brought with them their fun-loving ways, their love of family and their famous hospitality.

Of course, central to their culture is the food we’ve all come to adore and, after arriving in Canada, many of these new immigrants established restaurants and shops and imported the tastes of the old country.

This is the origin story of the Italian Centre Shop in Calgary’s southeast, opened in 2015 as part of a small chain of five stores in Alberta. The operation was started as a tiny confectionary in Edmonton’s Little Italy in 1959 by Frank Spinelli, an Italian immigrant from a small town near Naples in the country’s Campania region.

After his death in 2000, his daughter Teresa Spinelli took over the family business and she now oversees three locations in Edmonton, one in Sherwood Park and one in Calgary. Plans are in the works to open a second Calgary store in the city’s northwest in 2026.

Why do I love the Italian Centre Shop? Well, there’s some kind of magic here, one that I equate with an Italian sense of joy, playfulness and generosity of spirit.

For one thing, it’s almost always packed with all ages, making for excellent people-watching. Naturally, Italians shop here, but so do many other ethnicities, all drawn by the bustling atmosphere and high-quality European goods — over 30,000 items imported from more than 30 countries.

Like many of my fellow Calgarians, I love to travel and keep that overseas love affair going. In Italy, I’d finally discovered a richly flavoured decaf coffee, made by the Neopolitan company Kimbo, and was delighted to find the same product both served and sold at the Italian Centre Shop.

As well, the shop’s physical space is intriguing, with several different sections to explore. “Each has its own taste and smell,” says general manager Gino Marghella, who has worked with the business since 1999 and who oversees all five locations. The store, he explains, is designed to resemble a streetscape from Milan.

Take the produce section, a cornucopia of competitively priced fruits and vegetables. Purchasing from three suppliers, Marghella says, keeps costs low. Hutterite chickens and grass-fed/forage-finished Piedmontese beef from Lacombe, Alberta keep the meat section local.

Adjacent to the meat section and delineated by a wall, is what the long-time employee describes as the “bread barn” — a dimmer, quieter area next to where bakers turn out the likes of ciabatta buns and cannoli seven days a week.

Then there’s the “cathedral of cheese,” as he describes the vast refrigerated wall containing huge wheels of everything from parmigiano reggiano to piave vecchio. The company imports 80,000 kilograms of cheese from Italy every year.

The generous spirit of Italy is best experienced at the Italian Centre Shop’s onsite restaurant. The pizza, sandwiches, pastries and gelato are divine at Spinelli’s Bar Italia, as are the staff.

Marghella believes anyone can be taught how to make a coffee, but that a kind-hearted, hospitable nature is innate. He hires people who exude these qualities and then trains them well.

His staff make eye contact. They engage with customers and co-workers. They’re having fun and so are we.

This spark of humanity keeps me coming back, especially on sunny days when I can bike here with my friends for pizza, coffee and, perhaps, a tastebud-tingling lemon tart.

It’s the next best thing to Italy.


*Postscript: After this story was submitted, the Italian Centre Shop was named one of “Canada’s Best Managed Companies.” In response, owner Teresa Spinelli reinforced that her company’s goal, beyond top notch food quality and customer experience, is to “create community through food and cultural experiences.”


Toque & Canoe is an award-winning digital platform featuring stories about travel culture in Canada and beyond. Follow us on Twitter/XInstagram and Facebook.


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