The walls of Alimentari Aurora, a miniscule deli and shop in Potrero Hill, are lined with colorful tins of fish and bags of chips labeled in various languages. A glass case displays thick rolls of salumi and pecorino ready to purchase and be wrapped up in paper by the chunk. Diners in the city are guaranteed to leave the shop with a curated selection of food and drink for whatever the occasion, be it a dinner party, a fancy evening to impress, or a romantic night at home. It feels like Ollivander’s wand shop in Harry Potter – if Ollivander sold meat, cheese, and snacks rather than phoenix feather wands.
That makes Dario Barbone, Alimentari Aurora founder and owner, the store’s resident wizard. He’s always channeling his nonna Aurora, and when he’s thinking of what to stock, whether it be liver pate or craft chocolate, or how to treat customers, it always comes back to her. Barbone says she would be proud of the little store. “Aurora was a great grandma because she showed me how to be happy,” Barbone says. “She was a phenomenal caretaker. She didn’t have a great life, but she showed me a great deal of selfless love. That’s the driving force at my shop, through a smile, through food.”
Barbone is from Vercelli, a city in the north of Italy. After an academic career at Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale, where he completed a doctorate in molecular medicine, Barbone took a research position at the University of California San Francisco. He’d go on to spend the better part of 15 years there as a lab director, studying 3D cancer models. Then he made a hard pivot — he wanted to get in touch with food he loved and out of the stress of the hospital environment. He experimented with pasta, co-founding the now-closed Baia Pasta in 2011. But Alimentari Aurora is a different project entirely, one where he isn’t just making food but serving it in an intimate way. “It’s my kitchen on the street,” Barbone says. “I don’t strive to be of service to a larger community. It’s inspired by what I like.”
The tiny shop is indeed a mysterious grove. From the street, all one sees are Japanese-style noren curtains that serve as doors — Barbone says he wants it to feel like stepping in to have a private conversation. He’ll offer anything from a new vegan cashew cheese to lamb sausage to stuffed olives to Calbee potato chips. It’s a tight little room with a counter, behind which work Barbone’s chatty and personable crew.
Alimentari Aurora debuted as a pop-up in fall 2019 in the old Provender spot. But it wasn’t until Barbone fell ill during the pandemic that he decided it was time to get serious about his passion. While sick in bed, he decided to sell gift cards to an Alimentari Aurora pop-up, offering an eclectic mix of products from focaccia to lasagna to sandwiches and bags of chips; tickets sold out in one night. At first, trial running the business without too much investment was just for fun. His focaccias, which were available for pick-up at Ruby Wine or for delivery before he leased the Provender location, were already popular. He held cooking classes at nonprofit 18 Reasons to build buzz, too. Then on November 1, 2020, Barbone was able to give the shop its permanent home. Popping up at Ruby Wine was so popular during the pandemic that he opened with a bang. But business has petered off a bit now, he says, though he’s channeling some of that energy again, launching Saturday parties called the Aurora Sessions with the folks at Ruby Wine.
He also implemented a subscription service. While Alimentari Aurora is rooted on Potrero Hill, Barbone’s Fish Tin XOXO subscription service allows him to reach more than 80 customers from New York to Texas. It’s been in operation for seven months and features whatever tinned and canned fish he’s able to drum up, or what he’s loving at any given moment. Sometimes he sells trout, other times squid. “People still don’t know I’m here,” Barbone says. “The idea of the subscription was to sell food I can’t show here. Charcuterie you can see. Fish tin no.”
Mostly, representing Italian culture is what’s important to Barbone. “That propelled me even more,” Barbone says. “I have become even more interested in what I’m doing. The real experience though, the five minute conversation of what’s good, that’s what Aurora would have wanted.”