It was with a mix of sadness, nostalgia and, mostly, appreciation that I learned of the recent death of 92-year-old Andrew Balducci, scion and guiding force of the family that brought fruit and vegetable wisdom to countless New Yorkers, myself included.
The Balducci produce market provided a formative food and cultural experience for me. I moved into Greenwich Village in 1945 and that damply fragrant cornucopia of an open-front market with its dark dirt floor opened one year later between 6th Avenue and Christopher Street, at the point where 8th Street becomes Greenwich Avenue. It was a big step up for Louis Balducci, an immigrant from Bari in Puglia, who had a vegetable pushcart in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, before his son Andy, returning from naval service during World War II, convinced his father to aim higher. It was Andy’s insight and attention to the desires of food-obsessed New Yorkers that eventually led to the Balducci market expansion in 1972 just a few blocks away in a space large enough to include meat, fish and a tantalizing deli specializing in (though not limited to) Italian sausages, hams, olives, house-made fresh pastas, cheeses and superb prepared dishes, among which my favorite was the sprightly, pungent, calamari laced seafood salad.
But the nearly primitive original store evokes the most cherished memories for me. First, there was the staff, almost all family members that eventually included Joe Doria who married Louis’s daughter Grace (now of Grace’s Market) and who brought over his cheery, savvy brother Domenic. (Joe and Domenic are natives of Puglia, which is probably why the Balducci clan trusted them.) Playful and maybe a bit engagingly fresh, one or the other picked out selections for customers and explained characteristics of their unusual varieties such as lettuces when Americans generally knew only iceberg, Boston, bibb and, for a wild flyer, romaine, never mind the rainbow of radicchios.
Mushrooms then meant the round white champignons, end of story. Some of the darkly curling almost evil-looking types at this new market looked a bit scary in a wicked witch kind of way. The Balduccis introduced broccoli di rape (A.K.A. broccoli rabe), importing it from Puglia before it was grown in California, and regularly stocked two seasonal items I cannot find here even to this day. The most delicious (and rare now in Italy), is percoche, a huge, orange, late-summer peach best appreciated when peeled, sliced and soaked in strong red wine for about three hours before becoming dessert for a family Sunday pranzo.
The other, favored in fall for holiday meals by Italians here, is cardone. (Cardoons are a thistle in the artichoke family that looks like giant stalks of celery.) Covered in a silvery green coating, with thorny spikes along the sides, it is devilish to handle, blackening hands and needing a bath of acidulated water to stay bright, but worth it all when blanched and baked under a showering of grated Parmesan. It may still be found in some Italian neighborhoods but I have never seen it even in our diverse local farmers’ markets. With their native pride in produce, many of the Balduccis who lived on Long Island with its then many small farms would, on their way into town, pick up freshly harvested corn, melons and berries to add to their selection.
My favorite memories of that first store were of Saturday mornings, when I met other Village food professionals, most especially Craig Claiborne, and James Beard, whose home and school were then a few doors away from my house. With Beard might be baking expert, Paula Peck, downtown to teach a class with him. The patriarchal Louis Balducci often handed me a gift of a perfectly ripened melon or pineapple and, in summer, the whole staff, expecting me, put away the most meltingly ripe apricots, so softly, floppily juicy many customers would shun them as near-garbage.
My eventual special kinship with that original crew was due not only to me being a food writer, but because Richard Falcone, my late Italian-American husband, was fluent in the language which he and the staff spoke to each other. Never once did they address me as Miss Sheraton. To them, I was always Signora Falcone, as I am still to myself today.