Toni Lydecker's Tavola Talk Blog

April 26, 2013

NYC: Rethinking the Italian Neighborhood Grocery

Looking for Louis Coluccio’s new store in Bay Ridge,  we spotted “Italian Grocery” in old-fashioned stenciling on the brick storefront.  ”Are you sure that’s it?” asked my son-in-law.

But even from a moving car, I had also seen A.L.C.’s stylish round logo. The Coluccio family is into its third generation as Brooklyn grocers and importers of Italian products. The original 60th St. store, founded half a century ago, feels like a bit of a time warp, but Louis is a young guy in his thirties and with A.L.C., he’s clearly aiming to integrate the old with the new.

spicy soppressata

As we walked into a deep, brick-lined interior that once housed a butcher shop, Louis emerged from behind the counter.  ”Do you want to taste a really spicy soppressata?” he asked. We did, and found it delicious.

An employee offered translucent slices of Prosciutto Toscano, new to the American market. Cured with garlic, juniper and pepper, it’s a little darker and saltier than its Parma and San Daniele cousins, with a more earthy, intense flavor. We also sampled Garda, an aged raw-milk cheese from the Italian Alps, a fantastic Lombardy blue cheese (goat) called blu di capra, and house-made scamorza.

Prosciutto Toscano at A.L.C.

With a nod to Brooklyn boosterism, A.L.C. sells dough from Di Fara Pizza and pickles made within the bourough limits. Customers can order sandwiches or prepared foods to eat on site or take home.

Why this somewhat gritty-looking neighborhood? As Louis points out, Bay Ridge has a strong Italian heritage but is also emerging as a hip part of Brooklyn. He thought a neighborhood store like his could appeal to both kinds of customers.

The visit made me think about what makes A.L.C. different from Eataly, a mash-up of Italian products, restaurants, beer garden, cooking classes, books and kitchen goods. When I go, I confirm that they’re still stocking my cookbooks. Then I wander around  until my head is spinning. Finally, I sit down at the seafood bar and order the daily whole-fish special.

Eataly is fun, but as a customer, you feel anonymous.  Even if you live or work in the Flatiron District, they don’t really care about building a relationship with you. It’s not a neighborhood store, but a destination for Italophiles far and wide.

A.L.C. is more welcoming, a friendly neighborhood grocery that happens to be well stocked with Italian foods–some that arouse nostalgia and others you’ve never tasted before. If I lived anywhere close, I’d be in and out all the time.

Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto, with stores in Manhattan, Paris and Parma, suggests yet another future for the Italian grocery: an elegant balance between retail and restaurant. Thanks to the partnership between Parmacotto, an Italian salumi producer and importer, and Cesare Casella, a seasoned chef originally from Tuscany, you can trust the authenticity of what’s behind the deli counter and what’s on the plate.

Meeting a friend for lunch at the Upper West Side location, I expected simple fare–freshly sliced salumi, marinated olives and so on. Those are available, but we gravitated to more elaborate dishes glimpsed on nearby tables.

Perfectly executed caponata with bread was followed by a warm salad of julienned vegetables with baby squid, farro prepared risotto style with spring vegetables, and my favorite, mezzi rigatoni all’ amatriciana–the deeply satisfying sauce made not just with the obligatory guanciale (cured pork cheeks) but eight other kinds of salumi. Even the sauteed escarole made me homesick for the cooking of the Italian nonna I never had.

The Italian grocery closest to my daughter’s Park Slope home is Russo’s Mozzarella & Pasta, an outpost of the East Village store. I didn’t see any reinvention happening here–just Italian basics wrapped up by Latino counter staff–but they do make a mean broccoli rabe, fennel and mozzarella sandwich.

The Ploughman, an artisanal cheese and charcuterie shop in Park Slope, is a good place to load up for a picnic or aperitivo time.  To go with our Taleggio and mixed olives, we took home a couple of draft brews in returnable Mason jars. Local is part of the formula here. For instance,  this weekend they’ll be pouring a full-bodied Cricket Hill beer from New Jersey in honor of the 17-year cicadas expected to hatch out.

Boarding my flight at LaGuardia, I wondered what’s new at Di Palo, a Little Italy establishment renowned for its 200-plus cheeses from Italy.  A few years ago Enoteca Di Palo opened next door as Lou DiPalo and his son Sam set out to build a comparable reputation for regional Italian wines.

I also wished I had found time to check out Brooklyn Larder, known for sustainably produced cheeses, salumi and other foods.

But I’ll save those stops for another visit, reassured as I am that New York’s neighborhood Italian groceries are thriving in varied and interesting ways. Meanwhile, I might try to replicate that amatriciana.


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Fri, April 26 2013 » Eggs and Cheese, Italian delis, Italian food, Italian ingredients, Uncategorized

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