Saturday, July 28, 2007

Hand-sliced lox, summer stuff and figs

Between being out-of-town and being sidetracked by some community issues in my neighborhood as well as the Rick's Steak brouhaha, I've been neglectful of reporting on my shopping excursions. So here's a report on my visit to to the RTM today, as well as a bit on last weekend's visit.

Over at Hershel's East Side Deli, Andy is hand-slicing salty belly lox again rather than relying on Acme's inconsistent pre-sliced product. Hooray!

Earl Livengood (hosting his annual corn roast tomorrow at his farm on the outskirts of Lancaster; call 717 464-2698 for more info) still has some sweet, dark cherries which he's been storing since the bountiful harvest ended a couple of weeks ago. While not as pristine looking as when fresh off the tree, they remain sweet and delicious, even at $6.50 a quart or $3.50 a pint. Earl also had sour (pie) cherries for $2.95/pint, and blackberries and blueberries at $4.25/pint.

If you want a Hass avocado for guacamole or any other purposes, OK Lee wants 99-cents each, while Iovine Brothers is up to $1.49; last week Iovine's only sought 50 cents each. (Prices almost as volatile as the stock market.)

Figs are in season. Small black figs, roughly 12-15 packed high into a half-pint carton, $4.99 at Iovine, with green figs $2.49. All red and green grapes, seedless or seeded, $1.99.

Cucumbers are plentiful. Persian cucumbers at Iovine's were $1.99 a pound, which gets you about three of these smaller, six or seven-inch "seedless" cukes ideal for chopped salads and other uses. Greenhouse grown English seedless cukes were priced at two for a buck. Over at OK Lee big, fat kirbys, about two inches in diameter and six inches in length, were selling at five for a buck.

While the organic and heirloom varieties of tomatoes at Livengood's and Fair Foods will cost you $2.49 or more, the Jersey and Lancaster County standard field tomato (no slouch in the taste department at the height of the season, as it is now) are a bargain 99-cents at either Iovine's or OK Lee's. Local canteloupes (musk melons), watermelons and peaches are also in abundance.

Everyone's got good local corn now, including Iovine's. But, as anyone who has tasted it will tell you, the Mirai corn sold at Fair Food is special. Only a few ears were left when I stopped by at 10 a.m., most of it having been sold Thursday and Friday. So plan your shopping schedule accordingly next week.

Iovine bell pepper survey: Green 50-cents, yellow $1.49, red $2.99, orange, $3.99. OK Lee: red and green, 99-cents, yellow and orange $2.99. This time a year, I buy whatever color sweet pepper looks good at Benuel Kaufman's stand; today it was a small purplish variety.

John Yi continues to have a nice selection of wild salmon, as well as farmed-raised Atlantic salmon from Norway and other sources. The Alaskan wild varieties included king at $16.99, sockeye (Copper River) at $10.99 (up from $9.99 last week), and Coho at $12.99. Last week I tried the Coho, but its exceedingly mild flavor disappointed me; others, however, might find this just right. Meanwhile, with demand for soft shell crabs at its seasonal high, the price shot up to $6 per. (Come on you crabs: Molt!) Returning to John Yi is char filet at $7.99; char is mostly farm raised in Canada and Iceland, but the farming techniques used for this salmonid are among aquaculture's most eco-friendly.

Later this week I plan to buy some lamb, so I priced it today. Harry Ochs asked $9.99 for a boneless leg, while Giunta's (for what they told me was New Jersey lamb) priced it at $6.99 on-the-bone, $7.99 off. Before applying this week's 15% discount, the frozen Meadow Run lamb at Fair Foods is priced similarly to Ochs; with the discount it's more in line with Giunta's price. I didn't check Martin's, but in the past they've generally been the least expensive lamb purveyor, sometimes pricing leg as low as $3.99 on the bone, $4.99 off.

This week's shopping list:

Flank steak
Ground sirloin
Turkey bacon

Bell pepper

Mirai Corn

Plum tomatoes
Field tomato

White and red onions


Here's my shopping list for the previous Saturday, July 21, where most of the vegetables purchased this day, and the following at Headhouse Square, went into ratatouille.

Pine nuts

Turkey bacon


Cream cheese

JOHN YI $11.30
Coho salmon

OK LEE $0.99

Yellow squash

Tortilla chips


Headhouse Square

At Headhouse Square last Sunday, I completed my shopping begun the previous day at the RTM for ratatouille incredients by hitting up North Star for peppers and onions, Wimer's for roma tomatoes and more eggplant, Blooming Glen for bell peppers (as well as cherry and heirloom tomatoes for pasta, sandwiches and just plain enjoying by themselves). The biggest score of all for the ratatouille, though, was at Urban Girl: fresh savory. As one of the Urban Girls herself said, it smells like pizza!

Also at Blooming Glen, beautifully large, sweet and dead-ripe Tri-Star strawberries. This variety bears gorgeous fruit throughout the summer, so growers can expect three crops. They were delicious! I also picked up a pint of blueberries from a stand whose name I can no longer decipher from my scribble.

Here are some photos from Blooming Glen's stand:

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ithaca Farmers' Market

Enroute to a long weekend in the Adirondacks, She Who Must Be Obeyed accompanied me on a visit to the Ithaca Farmers' Market, which occupies a cruciform shed next to the inlet leading to Cayuga Lake, one of the wonderful Finger Lakes, three days a week during the growing season. (We started our trip Friday with a visit to the Herman J. Wiemer Vineyard on the west shore of Seneca Lake, where I picked up two cases of various rieslings, from dry to the American equivalent of trockenbeerenauslese, thence proceeded to Seneca's east shore to Dano's Heuriger where we enjoyed a Viennese tradition, Heuriger, of a mug of simple white wine accompanied by savory spreads, salads, charcuterie and, of course, a Viennese dessert.)

About 40 percent of the Farmers' market vendors are purveyors (fruit, veggies, meat, dairy and sellers of goods like honey, jarred sauces, etc.), with the remaining split between crafts/trinkets and food for on-premise consumption.

As demonstrated by the colorful Swiss chard and the hat atop Jack Goldstein's head in the photos at right, veggies were king last weekend.

But I came for the cheese!

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, SWMBO ran a small company in Ithaca, so I journeyed to Ithaca most weekends and discovered not just the market, but the incredible product offered by Northland Sheep Dairy. Jane and Karl North, who founded the dairy, had very structured ideas about farming, sustainability and holoistic management, as you can see on the website Karl created a few years back. Since then they've turned the dairying and cheese-making over to Maryrose Livingston (photo below).

My favorite among the four cheeses is Bèrgeré Bleu, a singular blue cheese highly praised by Steve Jenkins, and called "an American rival to Roquefort" by Stinky Bklyn, a Brooklyn cheesemonger and one of the few places outside Ithaca selling Northland cheese. I also bought Tomme Bèrgeré, a rustic mountain cheese. If you ever see any of these cheeses, including the barnyardy Folie Bèrgeré, buy them!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Headhouse Square: Week 2

Today was the second week for the Headhouse Square Farmers' Market and I was there.

Over at North Star Orchards, field grown tomatos were much in evidence, $2.50/pound. I purchased three hefty specimens; they aren't pretty, due to skin cracking, but based on the one I enjoyed with lunch, they are superior in flavor. Real tomatoes have arrived!

I purchased a fresh chicken from Mountain View Poultry Farm (they sell fresh and frozen chicken and turkey, as well as grassfed meats, organic produce and organic eggs) which I'll cut up and put on the grill tonight. I'm looking forward to tasting the chicken.

Pictured on the right are some fresh shallots and flowers at the Blooming Glen Farm stall, immediately found upon entering on the Lombard Street side.

The number of merchants seemed about the same as last week, but like then, there were a number of spots that were posted as space for a particular vendor, but no one was there. Perhaps I arrived too early (10 a.m., the market's opening hour) or perhaps they were no-shows.

Since everyone was talking about the daise on last week, I bought a bunch from Queen Farm to mix in with the red butter lettuce from Wimer Organics.

Over at A.T. Buzby, they said the canteloupe was a couple of weeks early -- they started picking last weekend. Based on the wonderful melon aroma that wafted throughout my car by the time I got back home to Fairmount, I'd say it's a good melon. We'll crack it open tonight after it's chilled.

Here's my full shopping list for today:

Whole chicken, $3.99/pound

Tomatoes, $2.50/pound

A.T. BUZBY ($5.50)
Canteloupe, $3.50
Corn, 50-cents @


QUEEN'S FARM ($1.50)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Jersey Tomatos

Jersey tomatos have arrived at Iovine Brothers Produce. Everyone else appears to have greenhouse tomatos. But the local field tomatoes should start to appear in two to three weeks. Get ready!

Langoustines (a.k.a. scampi, Dublin prawns, etc.) usually sell for close to $20 a pound, frozen, imported from Thailand or other Southeast Asian producers. Golden Seafood had them for $8.99 today, already thawed. I bought a pound (about five langoustines) even though I figured they're on sale because they're already defrosted and have a very short shelf life. They'll get grilled tomorrow (doubt I'll be able to eat them tonight after Pizza Club) and I'll report on the quality.

The Livengood Family will host its annual farm tour and corn roast for customers on Sunday, July 29, on the Morningside Drive farm on the outskirts of Lancaster. The evening meal will be pot luck. For details, stop by the stand Saturday at the RTM, Tuesday at the South & Passyunk Market, 3-7 p.m., or Thursday at the Fairmount Market, also 3-7 p.m. Or call the Livengoods at 717 464-2698.

Cactus pears (also known as prickly pears or, in Israel, sabra), have been back at Iovine's for the past two weeks, $1.99/pound. Usually I find them at O.K. Lee during the season, which runs from now through late fall, but not this week. Among Iovine's other offerings: English cucumbers two for a buck; hydroponic red peppers (slight scars), two pounds for $1; green bell peppers 99 cents, orange and yellows, $1.99.

Local string beans of various types are plentiful. Earl Livengood is charging $3.95 a pint for green beans, wax beans and yellow Roma (flat) beans. Benuel Kauffman's wax and green beans go for $2.99/pound. Since I didn't weigh Earl's, can't say which is a better bargain.

Berries and cherries remain plentiful. Here's the price breakdown. All are from local orchard except Iovine, which is offering West Coast dark cherries).
  • Dark sweet cherries: $2.99/pound Iovine, $4.30 pint/$9.00 quart Fair Food Farmstand, $3.95/$6.95 Benuel Kauffman, $3.95/$6.95 Earl Livengood.
  • Queen Anne cherries: $4.75/$9.50 Fair Food, $3.95/$6.95 Kauffman.
  • Pie (sour) cherries: $4.00/$7.50 Fair Food, $6.95/quart Kaufman, $2.95/$5.50 Livengood.
  • Blueberries: $4.00/$7.50 Fair Food, $4.95 pint Kauffman, $4.50 Livengood.
  • Red raspberries (half-pint): $4.00 Fair Food, $3.95 Kauffman, $3.95 Livengood. Black rasperries $3.00 at Kauffman's.
A very brief shopping list for me this week, since I'll be visiting Headhouse Square tomorrow:



EARL LIVENGOOD (Approx. $8.50)
Dark cherries
Red onion

Black raspberries



Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Tony in, Rick out out

Rick Olivieri, proprietor of Ricks Steaks, and Paul Steinke, Reading Terminal Market General Manager, both confirmed today that no lease renewal was offered Olivieri. Rick's Steaks is scheduled to vacate its stall when the current month-to-month lease extension expires July 31. The RTM has sent Tony Luke's a formal proposal to take over the space.

The RTM board voted 6-1 not to renew Olivieri's lease and instead offer the space to Tony Luke's. No deal with TL's has been signed yet, and Steinke wouldn't hazard an estimate as to when they would begin RTM operations.

Olivieri said if he had been offered a lease, he would have signed it. "I've been in the market for 25 years, I've spent my life here."

Steinke said Rick's Steaks probably would have been offered a new lease if Tony Luke's had not expressed an interest in coming to the market.

Olivieri and at least one other merchant think his advocacy against mandatory hours as president of the RTM Merchants Association was, at the very least, a contributing factor to the decision not to renew his lease. (Olivieri points out that he is open most Sundays, even though Sunday hours are not mandatory.)

Steinke said that had nothing to do with the board's decision. He acknowledged the differences he's had with Olivieri and other merchants over mandatory hours and other issues, but said the decision was based on the chance to bring to the market a strong local operator who is regarded as the best in the business.

"Tony Luke's is a big draw," said Steinke, noting the recognition its sandwiches have received from both local and national news media. The RTM manager, after acknowledging the impact lease decisions have on individual merchants like Olivieri, emphasized that "the Board believes Tony Luke's will make the market stronger."

He added that the recommendation was brought to the full board by its own leasing committee.

Tommy Nicolosi, proprietor of DiNic's, and several other merchants appealed for the decision to be reversed when they met with the RTM board Monday.

Nicolosi said today that although Tony Luke's would not put him out of business, he's unsure how much impact it would have, especially if TL offered roast pork sandwiches, directly competing with DiNic's, as well as cheese steaks. Nicolosi observed that he doesn't have the space to add a grill for cheese steaks. His menu offers roast pork, veal, chicken, sausage and beef sandwiches.

Steinke said that in bringing any new vendor to the market his goal is to do it in a way that will not undermine the business of existing merchants.

Nicolosi and his son, Joe, said my earlier analysis of the hoagie competition at the RTM was fine as far as it went, but didn't go far enough. Father and son observed that only Carmen's relies on the hoagie business and benefits from the overflow of customers at Rick's. (A situation, I might add, that would no doubt continue or grow if Tony Luke's takes Rick's space.) Salumeria, they said, does a higher volume in cheeses, olive oils and other Italian grocery products than it does in hoagies, and Spataro's hoagie sales are secondary to its breakfast and cheese steak business.

* * *

Those are the facts and views expressed by the identified parties. What follows is pure, unadulterated opinion and speculation. (And, just to remind everyone once again, you get what you pay for.)
  • Olivieri won't go quietly into the night, as his petition drive demonstrates. It's unlikely he hasn't consulted his lawyers, and I'm sure articles will start appearing soon in the Inky, Daily News and the center city weeklies. The goal would be to create sufficient public and political pressure to have the board (whose membership includes direct representatives of the mayor and city council) reverse itself.

    Such a reversal is unlikely. But if it happened, think about how that impacts the ability and authority of Steinke, or any other manager, to do their job. More important, what would be the implications to the market's historic mission of providing a public market while preserving its financial viability.
  • The merchants don't like it, but mandatory hours (especially the requirement that merchants stay open for business until 6 p.m. weekdays) are essential. How else can you attract office workers to make a stop for produce and protein after work or compete with Whole Foods? Although I don't work in Center City and would rarely take advantage of later hours, I think extending them to 7 or 8 p.m. would be even better given the increasing residential nature of the neighborhood.
  • While there may be some impact on DiNic's if TL offers roast pork sandwiches, it's likely to be negligible. TL would be much better off devoting resources to cheese steaks because (1) there's only minor competition and (2) that's what the tourists and most of the office workers who populate the RTM at lunch time want. Even if TL sells pork, it would be a minor part of the volume (except among dedicated eGulleters).

Sunday, July 01, 2007

RTM Leases, Round Two

Another public brou-ha-ha between Reading Terminal Market management and merchants boiled over last week, as evidenced by a "Petition To Save Rick's Steaks" circulated at the market Saturday. The petition claims the market has refused to offer Rick's a new lease, thereby forcing the eviction of the vendor. Rick's employees were asking customers to sign it, and it could be found at other vendor stalls as well.

I was unable to reach either Market GM Paul Steinke or Rick's Steaks proprietor Rick Olivieri Saturday, though I am seeking comments from both. It's difficult to believe (but not impossible) that the market failed to offer Rick a new lease. What's easier to believe is that a lease was offered and Rick found the terms unacceptable.

In the most recent round of lease renewals, which began in late 2005, Steinke has been seeking to restructure lease terms and track vendor sales, which is anathema to many of the vendors, particularly the high-volume lunch stands. All market merchants pay what is referred to as CAM, for "common area maintenance". And for virtually all merchants that figure is much larger than the separate "rent" fee. Indeed, merchants who are "purveyors" (sellers of foodstuffs for cooking/preparing at home, i.e., produce, fish, meat, etc.) don't pay rent at all, just the CAM. It's one of the mechanisms the RTM's uses to fulfill its mission of being a public market rather than a food court. Likewise, knowing the sales revenue of the vendors would enable management to charge them rents more in line with their ability to pay.

Since first posting about this on I've received two separate messages reporting a rumor that Tony Luke's was going to replace Rick's. One of the correspondents thought Rick Olivieri was being singled out by market management because Rick opposes Sunday hours. The other said Olivieri refused to sign a new lease because the rent was being raised.

I have no way of knowing whether the Tony Luke rumor has any basis in fact. Although I am not privy to any lease negotiations between RTM and Rick's Steaks, I would be surprised if RTM failed to increase Rick's rent at lease renewal time.

Here are some thoughts on all of these rumors. Keep in mind they are worth no more than you paid for them.

Rick's purported opposition to Sunday hours has nothing to do with the lease stalemate. He's certainly not the only merchant who opposes Sunday hours (so do all the Amish vendors, as do Pizza By George/Mezza and others). And if Rick did oppose Sunday on principle, why is he open at Citizens Bank Park for Sabbath afternoon ballgames?

Let's face it, this is about money: who gets it, who pays and how that money is deployed.

Replacing Rick's with Tony Luke's is not beyond the realm of possibility, but so what?

One of the my correspondents thought this would be terribly harmful to Tommy DiNic's. I doubt it would undermine Tommy's business. The RTM supports more than one hoagie outlet. Last time I looked, Carmen's, Salumeria, and Spataro's all competed to stuff your face with cold cuts, salad, cheese and bread. What makes a Pork Italienne sammie any different? And although it's not a hoagie shop, The Original Turkey can easily be considered a competitor. So can Mezza and its sister shop, Pizza By George, which sell "Euro" sandwiches. A cold meat sandwich is a cold meat sandwich; they all compete with what is, in essence, an interchangeable product. My guess is there's plenty of business for both DiNic's and Tony Luke's. As it is DiNic's and Rick's compete today (both sell hot meat sandwiches) just like Carmen's, Salumeria and Spataro's compete. Heck, Rick's competes with Spataro's, too, since Spataro offers cheese steaks these days.

If they were any real concern that a TL operation would put DiNic's out of business, a lease agreement for Tony Luke's could be written to limit the operation to steaks (and DiNic's amended to prohibit Tommy from adding steaks). TL's would either accept or reject the lease on that basis.

Now let's talk capitalism. Assuming Rick's rejected paying higher rent, it stands to reason that the RTM would seek to replace him with a similar vendor willing to pay a higher price. If a Tony Luke's, or a John's or any other cheesesteak vendor is willing to pay that higher rent, and Rick is not, well, that's what makes markets.

Now let's talk socialism. Why would RTM management seek to increase rents from vendors like Rick's? The critical reason would be to assure affordable rents for the purveyors of fresh foods (fish, meat, produce, dairy). They, not the hoagie and cheese steak vendors, are the heart and soul of the Reading Terminal Market.

If RTM management could not generate additional revenue from those with the highest profitable volumes (predominantly the lunchtime sandwich and meal vendors), rents would have to be raised across the board. This would harm the OK Lee's and Dutch Country Meats of the market much more than the Olivieri's and DiNic's. If the rents were based solely on square footage -- rather than also considering profitability (which is the way we measure ability to pay) most of the fresh food purveyors would be priced out of business.

Who operates a cheese steak stand makes a big difference to the owner, but it is of only passing interest to me. What I fear much more would be the deterioration of the Reading Termnal Market into just another food court. That's the likely outcome if increased revenues from vendors who can afford to pay are not captured to support the fresh food purveyors.

Goodbye Boston mackeral at $2.49. Hello $8 cheese steaks.