NYC’s Famed Gourmet Food Purveyor Balducci’s Began with a Pushcart in Greenpoint
Last week Andrew Balducci, the man who built Balducci’s into the premier produce store in the city, died at ninety-two years of age. Balducci achieved his fame and fortune in Manhattan, but his family story starts here in Greenpoint in 1918 when a poor immigrant from Bari, Italy rented a pushcart in the neighborhood. Andy’s father Louis Balducci spoke little English and earned just five dollars a week working long days. He would travel to wholesale markets at dawn and buy fruits and vegetables, which he then peddled on local streets. The work was grueling and during the cold winters and on rainy days Louis must have longed for the warmth of the Italian sun. Peddlers like Louis were looked down on and were considered a nuisance. Already by 1904 there were attempts to license them and control their movements.
In 1925, Louis’s son Andrew was born in Greenpoint, but only two months later the family returned to Italy where Andrew stayed for fourteen years. Andrew returned to Brooklyn in 1939 and when World War II broke out he joined the Navy and was wounded in the Normandy landings. At the end of the war Andy joined his father in the grocery business. A family business from the start, Louis worked with his wife and daughter Grace, as well as a young family friend from Italy, Joe Doria. Grace married Joe in the late 1950’s and he became a partner in the original Balducci’s. The family worked around the clock, seven days a week, including holidays, to build Balducci’s into the finest produce market in the city.
They opened the first family store on Manhattan Avenue near St. Anthony of Padua church where they sold not only produce, but also fish and meat. One of my neighbors remembers his father’s heated conversations with Louis in Italian.
The business began to thrive. They soon bought a truck to deliver ice and they opened a fruit and vegetable stand in Greenwich Village, which quickly became popular with discerning locals. In 1952, Andrew married Nina D’Amelio who quickly became part of the business. Sometime in the middle 1950s they closed their store in Greenpoint and concentrated on Manhattan retail.
In 1972, they opened a storefront at 6th Avenue and West 9th St where they would become a New York institution. The store began to change the tastes of New Yorkers. Food critic and author Julia della Croce said “Andy and Nina really taught New York how to eat and cook genuine Italian food at a time when it was perceived as little more than pizza and pasta covered with red sauce and gooey cheese,” “Theirs,” she said, “was a place where for the first time, New Yorkers found authentic Italian cooking and could buy the ingredients they would need to make it at home.” Manhattan’s best chefs flocked to the store and its fame grew.
By 1999, the business was so famous and profitable that an investment group bought it up and Balduccis made 130 Million dollars that year. In 2003, the original Greenwich Village store closed marking the end of an era. Balduccis soon became a corporation with franchises around the country.
Balducci’s became synonymous with gourmet food and became the first market in the city to combine all the products of a butcher, fishmonger, delicatessen and greengrocer in one store. Gourmet stores all around the country have since modeled themselves on Balduccis. Food writer James Beard, a regular customer said that Balducci’s always sold “the best of the best, at the right price.” However, few of the devoted shoppers in Balducci’s knew that the roots of Manhattan’s most elegant gourmet food emporium reached back to a poor Italian immigrant. When Louis Balducci began pushing a cart through the streets of Greenpoint he could never have imagined that his family would grow rich and they would build the business into an empire.