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Christmas Eve at Balducci’s, circa 1985

Emily Balducci Dec 21 , 2015

Christmas Eve at Balducci’s in the 1980’s was like a Greenwich Village flash mob. Customers queued up before we opened, not only to get last minute gifts and assemble their holiday feast, but to be part of the Christmas spectacle, Italian–style.

Food is the centerpiece of any Italian celebration and during the holidays, even more so. Garlands, wreaths and lights help set the stage, but serving your loved ones traditional Christmas foods is the height of familial regard.

In the retail world at that time, Christmas decorations appeared and holiday music cranked up the day after Thanksgiving. The only advance preview at Balducci’s was the panettone shipped from Italy mid-November.  Italians start baking the traditional Milanese springform cake in October. Andy Balducci discovered Muzzi panettone during one of his food trips to Italy and declared theirs to be the best. Employees who were feeling especially festive would work overnight to hang the newly arrived shipment across the ceiling. Shoppers entered the next day under a canopy of green and gold Muzzi boxes, a subtle announcement that Christmas was coming.

The store was only about 5,000 square feet and the lower level housed 3 offices, the main kitchen, two walk-in refrigerators and a freezer, the break room, employee lockers, bathrooms and all grocery and container storage. That didn’t leave much room for assembling gift baskets and catering platters, but that’s where production took place. Desk tops, counters and upturned milk crates were turned into workshop platforms with cellophane wrap, doilies and packing peanuts spilling everywhere. Cashiers became basket designers overnight, donning Santa hats and blow-drying their masterpieces while humming holiday tunes, enjoying the respite from the mayhem upstairs.

It’s not enough to say everyone worked hard Christmas week and even harder Christmas Eve. We became one with the tsunami that was underway. Though it was hard to sleep the night before, the feeling of shared purpose was galvanizing.  Workers arrived in the morning nervous but cheerful and customers responded in kind.  They kidded with us, were kinder than usual, some even bought gifts for their favorite butcher or cashier. Balducci’s had been a Greenwich Village outpost since 1946, and family members were always present, greeting shoppers and working alongside the staff. The energy was contagious.

There were deli guys – kids really, still in their teens - who were so into it they volunteered to stay overnight, sleeping on burlap coffee bags piled in the basement. Mama Balducci would make them an egg sandwich in the morning with spinach and bacon on peasant bread. After she passed, the kitchen ladies would do the same. The line at that counter never ended, yet each green & white package of sliced charcuterie, foie gras or smoked salmon opened like a sleeve of jewels when you got it home. That was the aesthetic of the original Balducci’s.

The pastry counter was always packed with customers during the holidays. Though we didn’t bake on premise, we carried the best the city had to offer. To keep the cases full, trays laden with fresh pastry from outside vendors sailed across the counter all day long, over the heads of customers. If they felt inconvenienced they didn’t complain, at least not on Christmas Eve.

Christmas season brought out the fanciful desserts that were the essence of our holiday décor. There were gorgeous glass jars from Italy filled with orange slices, chestnuts or cherries submerged in Armagnac. Brightly colored mini marzipan fruits sat in the refrigerated pastry window along with buche de noel, marrons glace and tiramisu snowmen. Chewy torrone and panforte cakes were exotic, very European and came wrapped in bright colored foil depicting scenes from Siena in the middle ages. They were ornamental as well as delicious, made great last-minute gifts and were piled high everywhere.

Andy was an advocate of the abbondanza school of merchandising – massive displays in every department and the more the merrier.  Abbondanza also referred also to an abundant table filled with specialty foods. He said Christmas was “the season of extravagance” -  the perfect time for promoting triple crème cheeses, lush smoked salmon and the finest caviar.

Speaking of caviar, in those days it was still plentiful from the Caspian Sea. Since office work came to a halt on Christmas Eve (as all hands were needed on deck), the main office metamorphosed into the caviar room. Three pound tins of top Iranian and Russian caviar were divided here into small glass jars of several sizes to display in our appetizing department. Anyone could do this work – you wore latex gloves, were careful not to crush the eggs and not get caught tasting. Many caviar connoisseurs emerged at Balducci’s during this free-wheeling food era.

Andy was adamant that all the traditional foods he remembered from his childhood in Italy be displayed for La Vigilia di Natale (the seven fishes Christmas Eve dinner). Our Tavola Calda  featured Baccala Barese-style (dried cod with tomatoes) and Tomacchio (boiled eel marinated in vinegar with red onions and pickling spices). Mamma Balducci also grilled chunks of eel and threaded them on skewers with bay leaves. We didn’t sell large quantities of these regional ethnic dishes but our Italian clientele loved them and Andy felt true to his roots.

The seafood case was brimming with fresh scungilli, baby octopus (polpetti), triglie, shrimp and clams in several sizes. We kept fish heads in the walk-in for customers making traditional  Zuppa di Pesche. Scales flew like snowflakes behind the counter as fishmongers cleaned whole body fish for the La Vigilia feast centerpiece.

Check-out was a marvel of efficiency, considering that PLU’s didn’t exist at the time. Our cashiers must be immortalized for their memorization skills as well as their speed. Since fresh produce is a market-driven commodity, prices could change every day, sometimes twice a day. In the 1980’s, Balducci’s cashiers were mostly young ladies from the Joffrey Ballet School on 10th street and Italian girls from the neighborhood.  They arrived for their shift and studied the produce prices for 15 minutes, jotting some down on a paper bag before manning a register. When the lines got crazy they moved at warped speed, gently flinging items onto the scale, punching in the right price, ringing and bagging in one fell swoop. Customers would express their amazement at such agility which motivated the girls to go even faster.

Refrigerated trucks were parked out front dispensing roast goose, suckling pig, rib roasts, lasagna Bolognese, pizza rustica, shrimp cocktail and more - all cooked overnight by the kitchen staff. The scene looked like a conveyor belt of human arms sliding food platters in one door and out the other. The catering choreography continued right through closing.

Amid the hubbub, Pop Balducci, by now in his mid 80’s, could be found seated at the edge of the bread department, barking at the bread girls to “speed it up” while turning to greet his beloved customers warmly. He always wore his derby hat and wool sweater and the Villagers loved to see him so stolid and tough. His son Andy would make a beeline for the produce department garbage cans when he walked in Christmas Eve morning. Despite the crowds and the chaos (or maybe because of them) he felt compelled to investigate any possible produce waste. Though these two ran a very tight ship, they knew they had to be physically present on this busiest day of the year.

Back to that line curling around the corner of 9th Street--fire codes determined how many people were allowed in at once. Store managers stood inside the entrance letting 20 or so through at a time.  How to keep those standing outside happy? Andy had the office crew passing panettone slices all day long to waiting customers. This little treat went far to assuage any agitation and spread Christmas cheer, Italian-style.

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