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The Surprising History Behind a Beloved NYC Italian Grocer

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In our ongoing quest to find the best products and ingredients around, we've partnered with Chelsea Market to highlight some of the shops and goods in New York's most famous food hall.

Long before there was Chelsea Market, the famous bustling Manhattan food bazaar, the industrial buildings that occupy the square block of Ninth and Tenth Avenues between 15th and 16th Streets played a pivotal role in American snacking. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the buildings housed the newly formed National Biscuit Company, a.k.a Nabisco, an amalgam of several baking companies that would go on to manufacture about half of America’s cookies. This is where the first Oreo was made, the products like Mallomars, Premium Saltine, and Barnum’s Animal Crackers were also churned out.

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Who needs animal crackers when you've got cured meats and aged cheeses?
Who needs animal crackers when you've got cured meats and aged cheeses? Photo by Bobbi Lin

More than a century later, a new kind of food culture has taken hold in the house that biscuits built. Twenty years ago, the first tenants of Chelsea Market moved into the restored space, which is now home to dozens of vendors. “The builder of this Chelsea Market, Irwin Cohen, called me through a common friend,” says Domenico “Mimmo” Magliulo, the owner of Buon’Italia, an Italian food importer and an original Chelsea Market tenant. “He said ‘I have a space if want you to take it, I know you have good products.’ I fell in love with the place right away.” Magliulo, who immigrated to New York City from Naples in 1976, had been running a wholesale business that supplied restaurants, hotels, and specialty stores with foods he imported directly from Italy. “My aim was to bring the best products that we possibly can at the best possible price,” says Magliulo.

Working in the restaurant industry during his early years in New York helped Magliulo, who happens to be the younger brother of the restaurateur Tony May (of San Domenico fame), gain insight into what ingredients were still inaccessible to the city’s chefs. “I started to work in restaurants as a busboy, then a waiter, then a captain, for about 2 years,” says Magliulo. “It was very good for me. It gave me a chance and opportunity to find out there were a lot of missing authentic Italian products.” Among the first foods that Magliulo imported were buffalo mozzarella from Campagna and fish from Fiumicino, a village near Rome. “I kept adding new products until I had a variety,” says Magliulo. “Originally I distributed products from my car. After I was feeling comfortable, I started to organize a company, get a space, and my first truck and driver.”

Why yes, we would like all those delicious snacks, thank you.
Why yes, we would like all those delicious snacks, thank you. Photo by Bobbi Lin

He called the company Ital Fresh. Over the years, Magliulo’s inventory has grown to include burrata from Puglia, several types of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, Setaro pasta from Naples, and olive oils from all over Italy, not to mention scores of other products. “We try to take the best of each region,” says Maglulio. His better-known clients have included his brother, Tony, Lidia Bastianich, and Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque. In 1991, when Magliulo realized he was selling quite a few dry goods, he changed the name of his business to Buon’Italia. Now, Magliulo estimates that he carries about 1,600 different products, all of which he scouts personally on trips to Italy that he makes several times a year.

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Opening Buon’Italia in Chelsea Market 20 years ago gave Magliulo his first brick-and-mortar location. It also made specialty foods that were previously inaccessible to retail shoppers available for weeknight dinners at home. Though the business has grown considerably, it is still family run—Magliulo’s wife, Antonia, makes the prepared foods for Buon’Italia, while the couple’s children, Antonio and Marcella, work on sales, distribution, and accounting. As for Magliulo, he’s in the store most days, interacting with customers. “I like to help people out, I like to suggest things,” he says. “People ask me about the products, and I like to talk to them.”

Pasta, per favore!
Pasta, per favore! Photo by Bobbi Lin

About a month ago, Buon’Italia moved from its original location on the ground floor of Chelsea Market to the new basement level shopping concourse, the Chelsea Local. The location is still very shiny and new, and Magliulo adores it. “The old space was twice the size, but I feel very comfortable in the new place,” he says. It’s still fresh, with gleaming white subway tiles and well-stocked shelves, deli and refrigerator cases, a small espresso bar, and a space that will be home to the kitchen and Antonia’s cooking. Soon, the kitchen will be preparing a special menu for Buon’Italia’s annual truffle festival, which takes place before Thanksgiving. “We charge a reasonable amount because we want people who have never tasted truffles to try them,” says Magliulo. “You can spend $150 at a restaurant. With us, you can try a dish with truffles for anywhere between $30 and $35.” One highlight is a raviolo with fresh ricotta and a runny egg yolk inside, blanketed in white truffles. It’s a far cry from an Oreo. But maybe that’s a good thing.

Have you shopped at Buon'Italia? What's the best thing you've discovered? Tell us in the comments!

In our ongoing quest to find the best products and ingredients around, we've partnered with Chelsea Market to highlight some of the shops and goods in New York's most famous food hall.

Tags: Chelsea Market, Buon'Italia, grocery store, shopping, New York City