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The History of Nardelli's Grinder Shoppe

CIRCA 1920 - Immigrants seek opportunity in America.

CIRCA 1920 – Immigrants seek opportunity in America.

Some sons accept their lot in life. They make the best of the situation in which they find themselves. Others may have equal regard for their circumstances, but they yearn for more. The Nardelli brothers yearned for more. In 1914, all three left the security of their home and the familiarity of their home town in central Italy. America was calling to them in a voice they could clearly hear. They pooled their meager resources and set off for a land of promise and opportunity.

After landing on Ellis Island, they quickly made their way to the thriving manufacturing city of Waterbury, CT, the “Brass Capital of the World.”

Joseph, Anthony and Fred (Giuseppe, Antonio and Frederico) knew of only one way to make it in America. Hard work. Joseph, the oldest, was the first to land a job. He worked in a sweatshop (aptly named for the working conditions) to support his brothers. After a bit of networking with their neighbors, who were also recent immigrants, all three landed jobs. They worked long hours and pooled whatever money they earned. Most of the money was sent home, to help their parents.

In those days, working conditions were unregulated and hazardous for all but the managers and owners. Joe lost a finger while working in the shop and he made a pledge to himself to take his brothers out of harm’s way and find new work for all three. Soon thereafter, they started working in what eventually became Nardelli’s Grocery Store on South Main.

In 1920, the store was put up for sale. Joe was interested in purchasing it and worked out the details with the owners. The agreed upon price was $22,000. In 1920, that was princely sum. With the purchase of the building, paying off the mortgage meant working even longer hours than they had been accustomed. Yet, the brothers never complained. They took pride in the quality of their fruits and vegetables, which they bought in New York.

During one of their buying trips, they noticed long lines of customers waiting to enter one of the store fronts, and a steady stream of customers emerging with something wrapped in butcher paper. Upon further investigation, it became clear what was drawing the crowds: grinders… torpedo shaped rolls that were stuffed with meat, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes.

If grinders were so popular in NYC, why not Waterbury? They decided to start selling them out of their fruit and vegetable store to determine if there was sufficient demand to keep the venture going.

They were amazed at how well the grinders sold. Soon, people were coming from all over Waterbury to get a grinder. Some days, the line would wind all the way down South Main Street. It was obvious that the brothers had created the perfect balance of “over-stuffed” ingredients and attractive prices. A combination grinder made from 1/4 loaf of bread cost 10 cents, a 1/2 loaf cost 15 cents and a whole loaf, 30 cents.

Though they had other specialties such as fruit baskets, penny candy and ice cream sundaes, they soon became known as the “Grinder Kings of Waterbury”.

CIRCA 1936 - The original South Main Street location: on the corner, directly behind the telephone pole closest to the center of the photo.

CIRCA 1936 – The original South Main Street location: on the corner,
directly behind the telephone pole closest to the center of the photo.

CIRCA 1944 The three brothers (L to R), Anthony, Fred

CIRCA 1944 The three brothers (L to R), Anthony, Fred

1946 Joseph (1st Generation) and Carmella celebrate their 30th Anniversary

1946 Joseph (1st Generation) and Carmella celebrate their 30th Anniversary

When Fred, the youngest and last survivor of the brothers, passed away in 1963, a nephew, Joe Nardelli, took over the business. Joe had arrived from Italy in1955, not long after the flood, caused by hurricane Carol, had severely damaged much of Naugatuck Valley.

Joe worked for his uncles until 1963, when he purchased and continued to manage the original South Main Street location until it’s demolition in 1978. Joe and his wife Rina continued the business at several locations in the Greater Waterbury area until settling in Naugatuck in the late 70’s.

1975 Joe Nardelli (2nd generation) waits on a customer in the South Main Street store.

1975 Joe Nardelli (2nd generation) waits on a customer in the South Main Street store.

1979 Rina and Joe wait on customers in their Naugatuck store. Their son, Marco (3rd generation), is standing on a milk crate at the register, closing sales.

1979 Rina and Joe wait on customers in their Naugatuck store. Their son,
Marco (3rd generation), is standing on a milk crate at the register, closing sales.

Joe and Rina, along with their children, prospered until Joe’s sudden death in 1989. Rina and her children have continued to run the business since then. During the 90’s, Nardelli’s developed many of the signature offerings that have made them a nationally recognized phenomenon: “The Mix” a blend of diced vegetables in a secret marinade. Hot sauce that ramped up the heat and the flavor of their grinders. Regular and chocolate cannoli’s and an ever expanding list of dessert offerings.

Nardelli’s has won consecutive “Best Grinder” awards in readers’ polls in “CT Magazine” and “The Advocate” for over a decade. Strict attention to quality controls and ample portion size has enabled them to expand the number of locations in CT and win an ever increasing number of loyal customers and fans.

1981 Everybody works! Rina and Joe, with their 2nd eldest son, Anthony.

1981 Everybody works! Rina and Joe, with their 2nd eldest son, Anthony.

1983 Joe and Rina are ready for the lunch hour rush.

1983 Joe and Rina are ready for the lunch hour rush.

In January, 2013, the Waterbury Regional Chamber’s Small Business Council honored Nardelli’s Grinder Shoppe with the prestigious 2013 Harold Webster Smith Award for “Small Business of the Year”. Rina Nardelli still oversees the two oldest locations, while the third generation has taken Nardelli’s into the world of franchising. There are now 14 locations throughout Connecticut.

This website is dedicated in memory of – Joseph A. Nardelli (1939-1989) and Frederick A. Nardelli (1968 – 1998).

(L to R) Anthony and Marco Nardelli stand next to their sister, Diane Nardelli Troiano.

(L to R) Anthony and Marco Nardelli stand next to their sister, Diane Nardelli Troiano.

The Origin of the "Grinder"

The consensus on the origin of the sandwich is unanimous. The Earl of Sandwich asked his kitchen staff to place a slice of bread on both sides of a piece of meat to facilitate eating on the go.

The origin of the grinder is somewhat more contentious, and both versions have their ardent supporters. In one corner, we have the notion that “Grinder” was named for “grinders,” Italian-American slang for dockworkers who spent the majority of their time sanding and grinding rusty hulls to prepare them to be repainted.

The more widely accepted origin centers around the sandwich itself. Subs, with their Italian bread, sliced meat and a generous portion of veggies, were harder to chew through than your typical ham and swiss on white bread. That chewiness got translated into “grinder,” since that’s what your teeth had to do to make tooth-to-tooth contact.

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