Like a young professor returning to Columbia--older and wiser than during his undergraduate days--D'Agostino opened its doors after a three-year absence from the corner of 110th Street and Broadway. Few undergrads will remember its previous incarnation alongside the much-mourned Mike's Papaya, but the new D'AG will be hard to miss, with a coupon in the campus pages, flyers competing with Wai Lee for lobby ubiquity, and a fresh look. For the first and last time, this is not actually a D'Agostino. D'AG Fresh Market is different; it has more fresh meat and produce, prepared food to go, and cheaper prices. Still, it's all in the family. Those among the management who aren't D'Agostinos by name have been around long enough--we're talking decades here--to be invited to Thanksgiving dinner. With a giant, anthropomorphic tomato and maiden shoppers on hand, Nicholas D'Agostino, Jr., cut the ribbon and then got quickly out of the way.
D'AG Fresh Market immediately distinguishes itself from its Morningside competitors by its generous square footage and stylish veneer. Overhead spotlights illuminate the produce as if on a Hollywood soundstage. Just like the elementary school students upstairs, the patrons of this supermarket are willing participants in an untested experiment. This is the first "Fresh Market" opened by the seventy-year-old D'Agostino chain. Their new corporate mantra of "fresh" can be found plastered on everything from the panini station to the rotisserie to the butcher shop. The front half of the store recreates the bustling environment of a food bazaar, albeit in an individually wrapped and bar-coded sort of way. The D'Agostino family hopes this new layout will attract patrons who don't regularly come to a supermarket for a quick take-out meal. While it's not exactly the food halls at Harrods of London, D'AG's offerings certainly out-fresh the sorry fare at Ferris Booth Commons. The rear half of the market resembles a more traditional grocery store, as the "fresh" buzzword cannot be so easily applied to hawking non-perishables and paper towels. Nevertheless, the wide, well-lit aisles are a pleasure to navigate. The ducking, weaving, shoving, and reaching associated with our other cozy neighborhood markets is nowhere to be found at D'AG.
Sticker Says 'Ripe'
Morningside Heights boasts precious few good fruits and veggies. At best, the produce sections at local groceries are like unmade beds; at worst, they look smote by a locust plague. D'AG Fresh Market, thankfully, is strongly invested in the produce niche, establishing direct relationships with regional farmers for fresher food and greater quality control. The section is manned by Charlie D'Oria, a D'Agostino d'veteran of 38 years. His job involves midwiving produce from the farm to your table, which, judging from our visit, he does with quiet aplomb and attention to detail: the melons are individually squeezed, smelled, and marked with a "Ripe" sticker if they're ready to be eaten. Additionally, the section is systematically groomed and spritzed, with every shiny bell pepper and feather stalk of parsley ready for its close-up.
D'AG's sleek, burnished look promotes itself as a well-heeled specialty market like Whole Foods or Citarella. There's an Italian-themed deli and cheese case, hot and cold soups, croissants and baguettes baked fresh throughout the day, a number of prepared pasta, chicken, and fish salads, and panini made to order. In this sense, D'AG is making a move not only on territory occupied by Westside and UFM, but on the meats, cheeses, and prepared foods of Milano. Will D'AG deliver on the promise of strong regional flavor, or will it turn out to have a mere patina of authenticity? That remains to be seen.
The Three F's
There are a few main themes at D'AG--one important enough to make the awning. Beyond the emphasis on fresh produce, which is waiting to greet you as you enter the store, is a special attention to service. D'AG employees aren't paid on commission, so you won't have to be worried about being suckered into buying the extra virgin olive oil with the extended warranty, but there will be a friendly staff presence to round out the self-proclaimed three F's of the new purveyor: fresh, friendly, and faster. Faster than what? When was the last time you tried making your own baguettes? There are also fresh-daily croissants that are sure to please. As for what you can create yourself, there are manned panini, sushi, and salad sections to ensure you get what you want made when you want it. The Krispy Kremes only come in three days a week, so check out the label.
CPI for the College Guy
Although some will pledge allegiance to the independent markets of the area, the family-owned, twenty-four-store D'Agostino chain is not exactly an evil manifestation of globalization worthy of a good Seattle-esque protest. So I, Ben Austin, decided to throw politics to the wind and determine which supermarket gives Columbia students the most borscht for their buck. But how would I go about such an investigation? I was going to give up and just call Fox 5 Problem Solvers, but I knew I could crack this case myself if I used my extensive background in economics--I've written three highly-respected books in my field; I've had two extramarital affairs with my TAs; and every week I complete the jumble puzzle in The Economist without any help. Yes, it is an impressive curriculum vitae, especially for an Urban Studies major, but I realized that I didn't need to look any further than Principles of Economics W1105 for my answers. Anyone (which is almost everyone) who's passed through the halls of this classroom is familiar with the Consumer Price Index determined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This "basket" represents the average goods and services consumed by American households. But the CPI basket does not accurately represent the needs of the average Columbia student. So I removed bananas and baby formula from the theoretical basket and substituted ramen noodles and lite beer. Our consumer advocates determined which of the three local supermarkets (plus web-based grocer www.freshdirect.com) give you the best deals for each item. Pick your vice.