Agata and Valentina
1505 First Avenue, New York, NY 10075, 212-452-0690, www.agatavalentina.com
We live a block away so this store is a constant temptation. It's expensive and crowded and the staff is poorly trained but there's a lot to choose from. On the down side, we can't seem to find a bread we like there, the hot prepared food can be so-so and the deli counter moves at the speed of grass growth. But the cold prepared food choices are better and with interesting seasonal selections and the fresh produce variety is top notch. Looking for a specialty herb or unusual vegetable? You'll find it here. The cheese counter looks well stocked and dangerously delicious. Lots of prepared salads in individual containers make for quick selections for a great lunch or easy cold dinner. The white bean salad, wheat berry salad and cabbage salads are especially tasty. The line to pay is long but there are many registers and they move fast. Your trip to that register though, will take you past the dessert department with its many individually packed choices. As you wrestle with your willpower, you'll smell freshly baking pastries and look over a dizzying array of sweet choices but the flourless chocolate Gianduja is worthy of a 4 star restaurant and the mixed berry cake is another delectable favorite.
1303 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10075, 212-874-0383, www.citarella.com
This isn't the closest gourmet market to our house but it's worth the walk. The Upper East Side store is shaped like a horseshoe beginning with a nice selection of nuts and fresh produce. A walk around the cheese counter brings you to a big selection of delicious hot prepared foods (the Couscous Primavera was so good I had to crack the recipe.) On to the bread section for our favorite whole wheat pullman loaf and one of those delectable cranberry muffins. The cakes in the display case always seem too fussy but Citarella's pre-wrapped pastries are yummy and surprisingly reasonably priced. The poppy seed cake and chocolate swirl cakes are our favorites for a treat with a cup of coffee or an afternoon tea. Finally we queue up to pay as we stare at the display of imported chocolates, some of which always seem to end up in our basket before we get to the cashier.
The Vinegar Factory
431 East 91st Street, New York, NY 10128, 212-987-0885, www.elizabar.com
The look of this warehouse-like facility is slightly weird and slightly cool. Even those who know what's behind the industrial 'meat locker' style doors might pause for a second to be sure. Another pause as you enter to wonder why it's so empty. A check of your watch to see if they're about to close. Hmm. While we can't argue with the quality of the gourmet goodies or the selection of fresh produce or the tastiness of the various tid-bits - oh, those prices! We'll confess a weakness for Eli's hard-to-find-elsewhere almond macaroons so severe that they don't always make it all the way home with us. But otherwise, everything here can be had at Agata and Valentina or Citarella for far less money. Come to think of it - maybe that's why it's so empty.
1411 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10028, 212-717-8100, www.elizabar.com
We resisted this store for a long time but finally gave in and went in search of gourmet goodies for dinner. This store won't win any prizes for beautiful layout of effusive service but the tempting treats were everywhere. We saw chocolates, nostalgia candies, holiday specials (it was just before Passover), a multitude of prepared foods behind the counter, more prepared foods laid out salad-bar style and a dizzying array of breads and pastries. Out of consideration for both our wallet and our waistlines, we looked long and hard before making our selections and here's what we thought of our dinner and dessert. Fresh bread...very good. Chinese chicken salad...good. Broccoli with sauteed garlic...the garlic was a bit overcooked which gave it a slightly burned taste but otherwise good. Pasta w/mozzarella cheese...very good. Mini jelly doughnuts...not our cup of tea. Apricot pastry...excellent flavor but a bit stale from sitting out all day. Holiday jelly fruit candies...yum. Prices...highway robbery!
2245 Broadway, New York, NY 10024, 212-787-2000, www.zabars.com
OK, we love Zabar's. There's lots of reasons not to love it but we do. It's crowded, poorly laid out and the service is slow and curt. But we love it. The house special rye bread is the best in the city, the chocolate rugalach are the best anywhere, the halva is a religious experience and we'd have to write a separate review on how besotted Brian is with the coffee.
tid-bits everywhere, we always manage to go there for some fresh ground coffee and come home with two full bags of goodies. Prices are expensive but far less outrageous than many of the other gourmet places so this one is worth the trip.