Goodbye to You – Balducci’s Turns Out The Lights in Manhattan

As I am sure is true for a lot of folks, I have a special place in my heart for Balducci’s, the gourmet food store that recently closed up shop in New York City, leaving Manhattan with one less destination on food tour itineraries.

Going to college, and then law school, in downtown Newark, New Jersey, it was easy enough for me to skip classes and hop on the PATH train from Penn Station, zooming under the Hudson, to 9th Street in Greenwich Village.  There, not fifteen paces from the PATH exit stairwell, was the bustle of 6th Avenue and the entrance to Balducci’s.  To me, that cramped, bustling shop was a treasure trove of undiscovered, almost forbidden, delights.  I was literally a kid in a candy store – a candy store that also offered cheese, and bread, and seafood, and all manner of top quality produce from faraway places that I had never heard of.

Many of the “exotic” finds that I would pile into my basket back then can be found virtually everywhere today, some even played out by 2009 standards.  The Balducci’s in Greenwich Village didn’t have a lot of space, but that didn’t stop them from stuffing every square foot with product.  I would squeeze my way up and down the aisles, pushing past the shopping carts of other patrons, gawking at the massive selection of fresh seafood on ice, marveling at the fact that there could be so many varieties of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, lusting after the biggest grapes I’ve ever seen.

Blue cornmeal, saffron, truffle-laced olive oil, prosciutto – these were things that were well outside of my realm of experience, and I would greedily snap them up and toss them into my basket.  The only problem was, I coveted these things too much – I remember buying a $3.99 package of red lentil dal and never opening it, for fear of screwing up a dish and wasting my valuable purchase.  It felt so good to find these things, I wanted to hold onto them and never let go.

As years went by and the rest of the world caught up with Balducci’s, I moved on, getting married and leaving North Jersey for Central Jersey, and then eventually into Pennsylvania and still even deeper into Pennsylvania when we bought our first house.  I had heard that the Greenwich Village location of Balducci’s had been sold and turned into something else – the company opened up a massive store in Chelsea, but when we went to visit last year, it didn’t have the same homey feel as the old location.  As time marched on, I discovered Dean and Deluca, Whole Foods, and FreshMarket.  Internet commerce rose to prominence, and today I can order red lentil dal from Amazon and have it on my doorstep tomorrow.

In a sense, my sense of fascination in finding new food items has been dulled by the advance of time.  Today, we’re trained to walk into a gourmet shop, or even a local supermarket, and expect to find a well-stocked selection of imported cheese, or ten different varieties of sea salt.  For me, the end of Balducci’s in Manhattan represents the conclusion of a bygone era, when a small food store unveiled such broad horizons and vast opportunity for a college kid who never knew what he was missing.

I was holding onto that memory.  Today, I’m letting it go.