Mark Steinbrick, a merchandiser for Melissa’s, the largest specialty produce company in the country, stands next to the giant jackfruits in the produce department of Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market at the Rye Ridge Shopping Center on Friday morning, Jan. 27, the store’s opening day. He displays the packaged arils that come out of them. The arils are the meat of the jackfruit and a protein source for vegans and vegetarians.
Richard Abel|Westmore News
Mark Steinbrick, a merchandiser for Melissa’s, the largest specialty produce company in the country, stands next to the giant jackfruits in the produce department of Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market at the Rye Ridge Shopping Center on Friday morning, Jan. 27, the store’s opening day. He displays the packaged arils that come out of them. The arils are the meat of the jackfruit and a protein source for vegans and vegetarians. Richard Abel|Westmore News

Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market made an immediate impression when it opened in the Rye Ridge Shopping Center on Friday, Jan. 27, taking the place of the long-shuttered D’Agostino.

“We love to create a wow in every department,” said President and Chief Operating Officer Rich Durante as he led an early-morning tour through the new 11,000-square-foot Rye Brook store, pointing out some highlights.

He said the store was convenient for consumers with no time, carries over 200 organic items (plus many non-organic ones) and stocks some of the biggest jack fruits in the world.

Mark Steinbrick, a merchandiser for Melissa’s, the largest specialty produce company in the country, bringing in products from all over the world, held up a 30-pound jackfruit and the packaged arils that come out of it, the meat of the Mexican import.

“For vegans and vegetarians, this is their meat, their protein source,” Steinbrick said. “They can grow up to 75-100 pounds. These are babies.” The arils taste something like a fresh version of Juicy Fruit gum.

In the bakery and patisserie department, a cannoli tower provided that wow factor, and I’ll have to say that these cannolis were as good as those made at Neri’s Bakery, which, after numerous taste tests, our office had determined to be the best in town.

An employee behind the patisserie counter talked up the two-layer Dolly Sin chocolate cake, a customer favorite, which comes in three sizes—four inches, six inches or eight inches. It’s on my list to pick up for our office’s next birthday celebration.

They also sell ice cream and professionally decorated cakes. “We have our own Cake Boss,” said Durante. “We just love to have fun.”

For the opening celebration, a large sheet cake, frosted to look like a white quilted package too beautiful to eat, when cut revealed a chocolate inside and chocolate filling. Another five-layer black, orange and white cake spelled out Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market, with a different theme on each layer, showing the kind of creative work their decorators can do. A third cake was in the shape of an Italian wine bottle that even fooled a Balducci’s bigwig who was in attendance.

Besides the decadent desserts and the luscious produce, Durante remarked about the colorful plants from New Jersey, the gourmet chocolates, including a huge Valentine’s Day display, and the large selection of cheeses. “Cheese is a big differentiator for us,” he said. “It is hand cut and wrapped every week. It has more flavor when you hand cut it than machine cut.” Samples of new offerings are given out at the front of the store on a daily basis.

“We are constantly giving the consumer new ways to use food,” Durante said. A current example is the quinoa-based sushi.

‘It’s all about prepared foods’

“It’s all about prepared foods,” he added. “You can shop here seven days a week and have something different every day.”

When it comes to prepared foods, there are numerous bars from which to serve yourself for takeout or to eat in at the plentiful customer seating at the front of the market. Besides a salad bar and hot bar ($9.99/pound), there’s a soup bar featuring about six varieties for $6.99/lb., a mezze bar ($8.99/lb.) with pita and ingredients like falafel balls and tzatziki sauce to make a falafel sandwich, an olive and antipasto bar ($10.99/lb.) and even a ramen noodle bar with a variety of ingredients to choose from ($8.99/bowl).

This market was designed to have a wide open feel, “a place you feel the energy and enthusiasm,” said Durante, and is the first Balducci’s to have an open kitchen. You can watch the chefs make quiches, sandwiches, soups and all the other prepared food items using Balducci’s proprietary recipes, which change on a seasonal basis.

Various meats were being sliced or recipes cooked up for tasting on opening weekend, but even after that the store will have a daily dish that the chef will prepare in the center of the store, said Durante.

Wow factor continues

The seafood department is called “Freshest Catch” because “we buy the last catch of the day which is the freshest you can get,” said Durante. He highlighted the 18-pound skate fish and the 15-pound grouper on display and for sale that day.

Meat is prime and dry-aged and can be cut any way you want it. For the wow factor, he challenged anyone to eat the two-pound cowboy steak.

Beef, pork and lamb comes from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania farms. There are even burgers made from grass-fed beef.

In the grocery section, check out the Sbiroli Zitoni 2 ½-foot-long pasta. Wow, you don’t find that just anywhere!

“We like to have products that no one else carries,” said Durante, like kosher items flown in from Israel.

From functional beverages (what?) to craft beer, there’s a drink for everyone. Functional beverages are healthy drinks such as the brand new Ripe craft juices that “serve a purpose,” said Durante. Balducci’s has a whole case full of them, beautifully displayed.

From food to flowers, Balducci’s rounds out the shopping experience with its catering department for any occasion.

Opening day hoopla

“We are absolutely thrilled and delighted Balducci’s selected Rye Brook to open their latest store,” said Rye Brook Mayor Paul Rosenberg at the opening. “It is absolutely gorgeous, the food looks so fresh and appealing.”

“You are all christened food lovers by standing in this market today,” said Balducci’s Chairman and CEO Judy Spires. “It was started over 100 years ago by Pop Balducci. One hundred and one years later we are opening this beautiful food market in Rye Ridge, New York.”

“The secret to our success is our people,” she said. “We could not be prouder of our people for getting us here today.” She also thanked the store’s vendor partners.

Tamar Jacobson from the Food Bank for Westchester, which provides food to 300 food banks and soup kitchens, accepted a check for $1,000 from Balducci’s. “We pick up food from stores like Balducci’s,” she said. “Last year we recovered one million pounds of food.”

Port Chester Middle School Principal Pat Swift received a $500 check for his school’s drama club.

“Our secret ingredient is our people,” said Durante, who introduced all of the department managers. “We searched far and wide to find this professional team. They are here to exceed expectations every day.”

“Let’s break bread together,” he said, at which time a 12-foot-long seeded Italian bread appeared, which the managers grabbed hold of and Mayor Rosenberg cut for the cameras.

With the Rye Brook market bringing the number of Balducci’s stores to seven in New York, Connecticut, Virginia and Maryland, further expansion is planned along the East Coast, including Westchester.

“We love the customers in Westchester,” said Spires. “They love what we offer. Our goal is to give the customer an epicurean delight every time they come into our store.”

Pop Balducci, she said, “invented take away foods in New York City,” where the first store was located on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village. The family, originally from Italy, cooked Italian food in the store and packaged it so people could take it home. “They brought the Italian experience into New York City.”

Not a typical grocery store

“We’re not a typical store,” said Spires when asked about the prices. “We’re a food lover’s paradise. Prepared food is worth every penny.” She also said Balducci’s features the highest quality food anywhere.

Customers shopping on opening day tended to agree.

“It is more like a specialty store if you’re looking for good quality items,” said Pat Wagner of Rye Brook “Some prices are high, some are reasonable.”

“The store looks amazing, like a mini Whole Foods,” said Nicole Parise-Flornese of Rye Brook. “It might be a place where I will do my supplemental shopping. I would come here for stuff I can’t find anywhere else.”

“This is amazing, this is dangerous,” said Rye Town Assessor Denise Knauer as she was sampling a pasta dish prepared by James Kessous, the account manager for Italian Products USA. “If I ever get out at lunchtime, I’m coming here.”

Catherine Simson of Greenwich, who was ordering foods from the deli, had no idea the store was opening that day. “It is such a great addition,” she said. “I come here [Rye Ridge] 3-4 times a week. I go to RIPPED and the blow dry place and Lester’s” in addition to Chop’t and Chipotle. “Everything is here. It makes it very easy.”

“It’s really something,” said Rita Marinaro of Greenwich, who was filling out a card to become a member and enter the drawing for a Balducci’s gift basket. “They have everything you need. They are going to put other places out of business.”

Professional team

Store manager Angel Caban has been with Balducci’s more than 25 years, having worked at the original Balducci’s on 6th Avenue, moving to the one on 14th Street and 8th Avenue, then to the store in Westport, Conn. and then to the Scarsdale market before coming to Rye Brook.

“I’ve been everyone,” he said. “I have the whole experience with the customer.”

He said they interviewed 300-400 people to come up with the 85 employees who were hired, “and we’re still looking” for people in every department.

Caban’s goal is to make a connection with customers, provide them with the freshest products and build relationships with Rye Brook and Port Chester.

Many associates live within walking distance, he said. That includes front end manager Diego Olivero Godoy who lives five blocks away on Soundview Street in Port Chester.

He was a part-time cashier for four years at D’Agostino and also worked part-time at Balducci’s in Greenwich, eventually becoming full-time front end manager at Balducci’s. When the Rye Brook store opened, he was transferred there.

Parking tight

The opening of Dig Inn and now Balducci’s has put a strain on parking at the Rye Ridge Shopping Center.

“You come here at 11:00 and you can’t get a space,” said Pat Wagner of Rye Brook.

Win Ridge Realty, LLC, which owns the shopping center complex, has encouraged tenants and employees to park in the perimeter spaces of the parking lot or the rear of the building to leave open the more convenient spaces for customers and patients.

“This is a good problem to have,” said Mayor Rosenberg. “You can’t park in front of the front door all the time. I’ll take a crowded parking lot over an empty parking lot any day.”