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Portraits Tyrone Beason

'Big John' Croce | Out of white buckets, he grew a gustatory empire

Before gourmet olive oil stores, before Whole Foods' culinary porn aesthetic, there was John Croce with his '68 Plymouth Valiant and a dream.

Known as "Big John," Croce's the man behind Big John's PFI, formerly known as Pacific Food Importers, a Mediterranean supermarket that's as beloved as it is hard to find.

But supermarket doesn't quite capture the deliberately unpretentious atmosphere of this old brick warehouse hidden off Sixth Avenue South, just south of the International District. Take an in-the-know friend, bring a map or forge a path using GPS. You'll thank yourself later.

Big John's sells inexpensive Mediterranean spices out of white buckets labeled with Magic Marker, preserved fruits imported from places that used to be empires and hunks of European cheese sold only by the pound, so don't even think of asking for less than a pound. There are shelves of pasta, stuffed grape leaves, cured meats, exotic pastes, vinegars, phyllo dough and roasted red peppers from the farmlands of Navarra, Spain.

And there's olive oil, which is how it all began back in 1971 when Croce's main wholesale customers were grocers, as well as Greek and Italian eateries.

"I started out with 100 cases of olive oil in gallon containers," Croce says. "It came on a ship from Spain. I put five cases at a time in my car and went out and peddled it.

"By God, it sold!"

In those days, he says, "I had no employees. I had me."

The business grew from his car trunk to a truck to warehouses.

All the while, Croce was helping expose Seattle to what was then a fairly undiscovered food universe that spanned from Morocco to Turkey.

Today Big John's is itself a $15 million-a-year, family-run empire, headed by an Italian American from Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood who still greets visitors to his office with a glass of his homemade zinfandel and enough salty language to cure a pancetta.

Big John is, in fact, a big man. But he insists he doesn't have any more big dreams. Turning PFI into one of Seattle's best-kept secrets is a pretty big deal on its own.

"I'm 83 years old," he huffs with a lifetime's worth of self-satisfaction. "What the hell would I be dreaming about" anyway?