Saturday, April 13, 2013

Agata & Valentina Fine Foods Celebrates 20th Anniversary with "Chefs Who Shop" & Chef Michael Lomanaco Cooking Demo

Agata & Valentina Cheese Selection

Not unlike The New York Sun’s editorial that famously reassured its readers; I can 
can likewise give comfort: “Yes, Virginia, there is an Agata and a Valentina.”

These two ladies are the mother and daughter family food force behind the A&G Italian gourmet market named for them.

But it’s really a family affair. 

Picture a big Sicilian Sunday family dinner starring a constellation of aunts, uncles, and cousins, with Uncle Louis Balducci and the father Joe Musco, mother Agata, daughter Valentina and her husband, Michelle Puleo, as the main characters.

In fact, those family meals are more often than not the first meal – or testing at table - for many of the recipes that end up as prepared foods in the family’s specialty food business.
There isn’t anything they offer as prepared foods that hasn’t been tested over and over.

This is a food family whose marriages are made in kitchen heaven! 
Kitchens can be considered "heaven."  
After all, don't you often hear the angels sing when you are taking that fresh-baked bread out of the oven? 
Or see the stars aligned when the pea soup sashays from the fridge with with its flavors ever more attenuated?
In a broader sense, one can say the partners have created a marriage of a different kind: that of a restaurant and a retail store that has distinguished their family business Agata & Valentina from all other New York grocers. 

It’s been almost a year since the family expanded their Gotham reputation for traditional, authentic, homemade food from the First Avenue location, along with artisanally made mouth-watering food sourced from around the world, and opened their second store (not on Second Avenue which would have made the address choice a lyrical or poetic one!) but in Greenwich Village – a sort of coming home for Louis, who grew up in his grandparents West Village store, Balducci’s:
At the time of the Grand Opening, the love story of Joe and Agata was told – how they met in Catania, Sicily where Joe was on a food-buying trip.

Now, the family is marking their Village store first-year milestone and the even bigger 20th Anniversary of its world-class specialty retail and catering business.

I sat down with Valentina, who was raised in the business and steeped in the family food lore, to talk about the 20th Anniversary Celebration, kicking off with food promotions and today, Saturday, April 13th with an in-store chef cooking event.

Valentina is the manager of the Greenwich Village store, having formally joined the business after she earned her Masters in Business and Fine Food and Beverage Administration from Bocconi University in Milan, Italy. 

In what can only be described as a fairy tale, full-circle-of-life love story, Valentina ended up marrying Michelle, an Italian man from her mother’s village of Catonia.

It’s a big food world out there and yet… These two managed to find each other. 
The next generation’s love story resonates with its true north: food, family and Italy.

That passion for food tradition and quality ingredients is what drives the Agata & Valentina menu offerings. 
Made daily with the freshest ingredients, all the food they sell is hand made by the family in their uptown commissary. 
From pastry shells to pasta to gelato to the sauces and soups – everything is cooked and baked by the family. 
A key ingredient is love.

“If it doesn’t have a branded label on the package, we made it,” said Valentina, describing the prepared foods they make and sell; separate from the imported foods they shop the globe and local markets for and curate for their stores. 
(The food heiress proudly says her full name is Valentina Musco Puleo – following the Italian tradition where a woman legally keeps her birth surname. 
It’s much cooler though to think of her using just one name: a rather Foodie Cher or Madonna, no?)

And in a parallel European tradition, she noted the family lives in the neighborhoods where they have their markets and do business. Remarkably, in the case of the First Avenue locale, her parents live overtop of the place! Now that’s a true locavore, close to work commitment.  Take that Danny Meyer.  

You can’t make this stuff up.   
The threads of family, love, hard work, quality ingredients, local artisans, a passion for food, respect for the community and their loyal customers, and a tradition of an enduring, small-family business they are dedicated to -- creates a tapestry that makes Agata & Valentina so endearing. 
Plus it’s the classic American Success Story.

And a magnet for chefs.

“We have so many chefs who are very loyal, longtime customers of our Upper East Side store. And now here too,“ Valentina says with conspiratorial pride and a smile. 
One can see she can just know a collaborating good cook -- that she possesses a secret understanding of a fellow culinary artist and aficionado  – she is a Culinary Cassandra who’s power of foresight are intuitive.  And beguiling.

Given that New York is a very competitive landscape for chefs, to put it mildly, it’s a hats-in-the-air testament to the family’s benchmark penchant for making and purveying gourmet food that the 20th Anniversary celebration is marked by a “Chefs Who Shop” promotion.

And no less than Chef Michael Lomonaco kicks off what Valentina says they hope will become a “Chefs Who Shop” series.  

Chef Michael is the Executive Chef and Managing Partner of Porter House New York, the very highly regarded steakhouse in the Time Warner Center, as well as of Center Bar, also in the Time Warner Center.
Chef Lomonaco previously helmed such restaurants as The 21 Club and Windows on the World and is the author of several cookbooks.

“Chef Michael and my mother just connected.  It was fun to listen to the two of them talk about food. They were on same page,” she added. 

Agata is the enterprise’s key recipe developer, so one could make the case they are on the same cookbook page.

All is simpatico, and customers will be able to see Chef Michael Lomonaco demonstrate cooking two of his signature, bold recipes in the brick oven, while he talks, offering cooking tips and food stories.
Samples of both dishes will be given out to the customers, along with the recipes and shopping lists for those who would like to recreate these classic Sicilian dishes at home.

A&G will provide the recipes and in a creative, special, courteous nod to their customers: a “Shopping List” with the ingredients needed for the recipes and a column “Where to Find It in the store.  
How easy is that?

The other element of the 20th Anniversary that is sure to make customers happy is the aggressive, promotional pricing.  
Advertised in the New York Times and on the A&G web site, the prices are spectacular and reflect a true saving. 
“Last Saturday was my birthday,” said Valentina.  “And Dad got to the party so late because he was so busy trying to get The best deals!” she laughed. 
To best celebrate the big anniversary, she explained, “We hand-picked stuff we love.”    
The Grass-fed Certified Piedmontese Ribeye Steaks are $19.99 a pound, regularly $27.99, Lamb Chops will be $8.99 a pound, on sale from the regular $16.99 a pound, Scotch Salmon Fillets will be $8.99 from $12.99, and the Burrata – flown in fresh from Italy each week is $9.99 vs. the regular $13.99.  Overall, the list is long and impressive.

For a full list of promotions, er Promozione’s, that run from Friday, April 12 to Wednesday, April 17th:

The store is a sensual delight – brimming with the bright colors of fresh produce and thick steaks and sherbet-colored fish; food fragrances of coffee, bread and warm mozzarella made while you watch, teases the palette. And taste. Tastings abound at the market.  I dare you to taste and not bring home the seasonal and daily sweet treats.  


When asked what has been the biggest surprise at the new store, Valentina paused and thought a moment before replying, “From Day One, the customers have been so loyal.  I thought it would take some time, but every day I see them.  I can’t help just looking at them. I know my customers.” 
I guess one could say this Culinary Cassandra can see into their foodie souls. 
And she welcomes them, wills them, to be a part of her extended food family. 
Valentina Musco Puleo @ her family's Greenwich Village A&G

Recipes and Shopping Lists for 20th Anniversary Promotion

Chef Michael Lomonaco


¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced, about ½ cup
1 cup quick cook couscous
¼ teaspoon saffron
½ cup canned crushed tomatoes
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, more if desired
1 ½ cups hot bottled clam juice
1 pound cleaned, fresh shrimp, about 26 pieces
¼ cup shelled almonds, finely chopped 


In a bowl mix the uncooked couscous with ¼ cup olive oil and ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Rub the couscous between your fingers to fully incorporate these ingredients.

In a large casserole heat 2 tablespoons of oil over low heat. Add the onions and begin to cook them to a translucent stage. Without browning the onion, add the saffron, crushed tomatoes, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Stir these ingredients in quickly and set mixture aside.

Pour the hot broth into the couscous, and quickly bring to a boil before reducing the heat to a simmer. Allow to simmer for 3 minutes. After simmering gently for 3 minutes, add the onion mixture and peeled shrimp to the couscous and simmering broth, stirring to combine with the couscous. Once it begins to simmer again cook for 6-7 additional minutes. The shrimp will gently poach and cook along with the couscous.

Once the shrimp have cooked fully, transfer to a serving platter and keep warm.

Serve the shrimp and couscous, ladling any remaining broth over the top. Sprinkle the crushed almonds over the whole dish as it is being served.

Yields 4-6 servings.
© Michael Lomonaco


What                                                                                  Where to Find It

Cleaned, Fresh Shrimp (1LB/approx. 26 pcs.)                  FISH COUNTER
Just pulled from the sea!

PINA Saffron Threads                                                       SPICE RACK

A&V Tellicherry Black Peppercorns                                 SPICE RACK

A&V Red Pepper Flakes                                                   SPICE RACK

A&V Shelled Almonds                                                       DRIED FRUIT & NUTS

Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A&V-brand 100% Italian EVOO – ON PROMO!                        GROCERY AISLES

A&V Couscous                                                                  GROCERY AISLES

Crushed Tomatoes                                                             GROCERY AISLES

CENTO Clam Juice (two 8 oz. bottles)                            GROCERY AISLES                          
A&V Sicilian Sea Salt                                                         GROCERY AISLES

1 Small Onion                                                                     PRODUCE

Chef Michael Lomonaco

Real Sicilian street food. This easily made dish is readily found at large family gatherings as a late night snack after all the serious cooking and eating is but a memory until the next holiday or wedding.

The Dough:
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup semolina flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 package yeast
1 cup warm water
1 large egg
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

The Topping:
3 large sweet onions, finely sliced, about 4 cups
1/3 cup olive oil
6 oz. tomato paste
3 ounces flat oil-packed anchovy fillets, drained and coarsely chopped
½ tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Italian-style, unseasoned, dry bread crumbs

In the bowl of a cake mixer using a dough hook or a food processor fitted with the plastic dough blade, combine the two kinds of flour and the salt. Dissolve the yeast in the water and add to the flour on low speed or pulse briefly. Continuing on low add the egg and oil and allow the dough to work until a ball has formed and the dough has completely pulled away from the sides of the bowl. Allow the dough to work for 6-7 minutes before removing. Place the dough in a clean bowl, covered with a cloth and allow to proof and double in size by placing in a warm area for 50- 60 minutes.  (Grandma would do this by hand on a wooden board by making a mound of the flour and salt, making a well in the center and adding all the ingredients to the well, folding the ingredients together and then working the dough by hand for 10 -12 minutes until the ball of dough was ready to rest.)

 To cook the onions, place a large fry pan (10-12 inch pan, 3 inches deep) or brazing pan on the stove. If you do not have a pan this size, cook the onions in multiple batches. Turn the heat on low and add the oil, heat for one minute before adding the onions. The onions should cook until they are soft, translucent and sweet without being dark or caramelized.  Stirring and turning them occasionally to prevent burning or sticking, cook the onions for 10-12 minutes.

Add the chopped anchovies to the cooking onions, stir to combine and cook for several minutes before adding the tomato paste and pepper. Continue to cook for 8 more minutes on low heat before removing from the heat and setting aside. The cooked mixture will be a thick, moist onion sauce.

Pre-heat oven to 450°F. Prepare 2 large rectangular pizza pans or cookie sheets with 1/2 inch sides by brushing the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil all over the inside of each pan. Punch down and divide the dough into 2 equally-sized pieces. Place on a pastry board dusted with flour and roll out the dough into the size and shape of the pans in which they will bake. Lay out the dough in the pans and sprinkle and equal amounts of bread crumbs on each, covering the surface in a uniform fashion. Pre-bake the dough for 10-12 minutes until the bottom begins to turn pale golden. This will ensure a dry, crisp bottom.

Divide the onion mixture evenly in two and cover each of the dough shells with the mix, leaving a 1/2 inch of uncovered dough as a border around the edges. Place in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes until the bottom is dark golden but not burned, and the top is a richly colored caramel. Remove your sfincioni and allow to cool for a few minutes before cutting into portions. Two will yield about 20 pieces.
© Michael Lomonaco


What                                                                                  Where to Find It

3 Large Sweet Onions                                                          PRODUCE

Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A&V-brand 100% Italian EVOO – ON PROMO!                GROCERY AISLES

MUTTI Tomato Paste (4.5 oz.) – 2 tubes                           GROCERY AISLES

A&V Jarred Anchovy Fillets in Olive Oil (3 oz.)                 GROCERY AISLES

A&V Semolina Flour                                                           GROCERY AISLES

A&V All Purpose Flour                                                       GROCERY AISLES

A&V Sicilian Sea Salt                                                           GROCERY AISLES

SAF Active Dry Yeast                                                         GROCERY AISLES

Country Hen Organic Extra Large Eggs                              DAIRY CASE
ON PROMO -- 2 for 1!

A&V Tellicherry Black Peppercorns                                   SPICE RACK

A&V Italian-style, unseasoned, dry bread crumbs                 BREAD

Agata & Valentina

64 University Place
New York, NY 10003

Open 7 am to 10 pm
Cappuccino Bar: 8:00 am – 10:00 pm Serves the family’s imported espresso, too.

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