It’s noon on a Friday at Reyna Foods in the Strip District and owner Nicola DiCio stands smiling amid the chaos.
Since opening in 1988, the store has been Pittsburgh’s go-to spot for Mexican groceries, including meats and cheeses, tamales and the house-made tortillas that launched the business.
It’s a different neighborhood now, with more condos going up and fewer wholesale transactions going down. As he inches toward retirement, DiCio, 55, hopes someone will take the reins at Reyna.
“I don’t have kids so there’s not another generation to leave it to,” he says. “I’m a little concerned with what’s happening to the Strip; it’s changing a lot with all of this development. Property values and rents are going up and a lot of smaller businesses can’t afford that rent. It’s going to take away the flavor and ethnic foods. That’s what attracted people to this area to begin with.”
DiCio grew up on a farm straddling Hampton and Indiana Townships, where his parents celebrated their respective heritages (Italian on his father’s side, Mexican on his mother’s) through food. As a boy, he spent a lot of time at his uncle’s ranch in Texas, learning about south-of-the-border cuisine.
Back at home in the school lunch line, he’d often wonder, “Where are the tortillas?”
“They didn’t exist,” he says. “Nobody knew what a chipotle pepper was back then. That’s how I got the idea to do the store. We had to teach them.”
Reyna — his mother’s maiden name — started in Etna. Times were tough at first, since there weren’t a lot of local ethnic eateries to cater to. The Franklin Inn Mexican Restaurant in the North Hills was the fledgling company’s first wholesale account, followed by Station Square’s now-defunct Tequila Junction.
It now supplies more than 50 area restaurants.
DiCio would make weekly trips to New Jersey to pick up a truckload of fresh tortillas made by a man from Puebla, Mexico who, at that time, was the only one on the East Coast producing the flatbread. A lack of preservatives meant they didn’t have a long shelf life, so DiCio decided to throw them in a deep fryer and create chips.
Customers gobbled them up faster than he could make them. Eventually, he bought a bunch of old machines and a trailer full of blue corn and started producing the snacks on an automated line to keep up with demand.
“It took me that whole load to perfect the process,” he says, “but they came out nice and very flavorful.”
His factory in Cadogan, Armstrong County, has been featured in an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and in Rick Sebak’s documentary “Right Beside the River.” He generates 2,000 pounds of Mexican munchies per day, including private label chips for companies such as Snyder of Berlin.
As business grew, he moved his retail outlet to Penn Avenue in the Strip and joined forces with business partner Linda Jones. Along with Mexican groceries, they sell culinary items from around the world, such as hot sauces, piñatas and folk art.
In 2000, DiCio bought the neighboring building — Reyna Foods’ current location — and started to make his own corn and flour tortillas in-house, along with salsas, burritos and tacos.
“They sold like crazy,” he says. “That’s when I realized Pittsburgh was ready for Mexican cuisine.”
He opened Casa Reyna Ristorante Mexicano in the basement of the store six years ago. Although successful, the place closed June 1.
“The restaurant ran its course,” DiCio says. “I didn’t do it for the money. I got a lot of enjoyment out of it and it met all of my expectations. I didn’t close because I had to. It was a choice.”
For now, it’s still business as usual at Reyna Foods. DiCio will continue to sell roasted chilis and other items from a sidewalk stand on Saturdays. But he yearns for someone to carry on his legacy — continuing to import ethnic foods and starting their own restaurant at the site when he’s gone.
“Hopefully that person emerges in the next five years,” he says. “The foundation has been laid. You have to have faith. You have to have trust.”