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Building the Ballot – Ethnic Markets

February 20, 2012

Well here is the third working post of the FUSSYlittleBALLOT 3.0. If you haven’t been keeping up with the blog daily, you may want to take a few minutes and read about the plan to build a better ballot for the Times Union’s 2012 Best of the Capital Region poll.

Today is a working session. I hope you are ready.

The conversations we’ve been having about wine & beer stores and grocery stores & farmers markets have been fascinating. Still, it’s like pulling teeth to get people to list their three top picks for The Best in each category based on a broader set of criteria than their favorite place to shop.

This is the kind of input I’m looking for as I try to assemble a slate of businesses from your comments over the next several weeks. We’ve got a lot more work to do, and if you haven’t weighed in on past categories, they are still open for comments.

But now it’s time to talk about our best ethnic markets. I really really hope Michael Janairo at the Times Union takes my suggestions seriously, because as the questionnaire now reads, ethnic diversity is completely overshadowed by the rich and vibrant Italian heritage that permeates the region. As a realist, I’m not going to hold out hope for a category celebrating each ethnicity that contributes to culinary life here. So let’s talk Italian and then we’ll talk in Esperanto.

To say we’ve got a lot of Italian markets in the region is an understatement. And personally, I like them all. I love that DeFazio’s has a guy downstate who keeps his eyes out for wheels of Fiore Sardo, and will snag one and drive it to Troy when he can. Are they the best Italian market?

What makes an Italian market good? And which ones are just a little bit better, rising to the top and qualifying as one of The Best? I’m curious to see what you have to say. But the only fair way I can think of doing this is making one pick per city and seeing which one rises to the top. You can feel free to agree or disagree, and leave as detailed a comment as you like. All I ask is that if you play along at home, you submit not just your top pick, but the three best options (in rank order).

3. Schenectady: Capri Imports
Hard to find imported Italian stovetop espresso makers, fresh baked bread, and sandwiches that could choke a horse? I mean that in a good way. But speaking of horses…

2. Saratoga: Roma’s
This year we’re sticking to individual locations. Anyone want to make the claim that the Latham Roma’s is actually better? Maybe it has fewer annoying tourists during the track season. But I’m sticking with the crowd favorite on this one.

1. Albany: Cardona’s
Here’s the thing: Cardona’s has it all. It’s classic. It’s a neighborhood joint. They’ve got hot food, deli sandwiches, a counter to eat, fresh produce, a dedicated cheese section, Crisan gelato, high quality raw meats, and a whole host of other Italian staple ingredients. It smells amazing. And Prinzo’s bakery is right across the street. At Cardona’s you can get classic without dingy, great food without pretense, and every ring of the register feels like you are supporting the surrounding community.

I imagine that everyone will have their own top three places. But this one is exceedingly hard. And it’s one of the reasons I’m glad to have your input this year, because my confidence in these selections isn’t as high as I would like.

You know what else is impossibly hard? Trying to come up with the best non-Italian ethnic markets in the Capital Region. Like their Italian cousins, the best ones don’t just sell groceries but also serve up tasty food from the region.

3. La Mexicana Grocery and Market
Besides my excitement about tacos and horchata, they have giant jars of huitlacoche. I’m still kicking myself for not buying one.

2. Parivar Spices and Food
South Asian street food in Albany? Never in a million years did I think we would have this here. But we do, and it’s amazing. Well, mostly amazing. Their dosas have improved, but their bhatura still needs a bit of work. They have fresh produce, frozen foods, British foods from the colonial days, and mass quantities of exotic dried legumes.

1. Asian Super Market
What does the Asian Super Market have that the other ethnic markets don’t? A fish counter, a butcher and a bakery. The brave will find the friskiest fish and have it plucked from the water and killed. Then all you have to do is order by number to have your fish scaled, beheaded, boned and filleted. Easy peasy. No, this place doesn’t have everything, but it’s pretty darn close, and does an admirable job at trying to cover all of Asia, including a respectable South Asian selection.

How pissed are you that Dnipro, Sabah, Nora’s and a host of others didn’t make the top three? Frankly, I do think there’s an argument to be made for shunning those markets that could compete in other categories, like La Mexicana (for best Mexican food) or Parivar (for best Indian food). Although in the end, I think the Asian Super Market would still come out on top. So perhaps it’s just splitting hairs.

So, what say you?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 20, 2012 11:55 am

    Love Dnipro and the Asian Supermarket.

  2. February 20, 2012 7:19 pm

    I have always been a fan of Pellegrino’s on Central and they would be my number 1 pick. I think their Parmesan cheese and Prosciutto are better than other area stores. They may not be next door to Prinzo’s, but they carry Prinzo’s rolls. I sometimes go to the Roma’s in Latham and rarely to Cardona’s. But never because I prefer them, it is just because I happen to be near one.

    Have to agree with Mr. Sunshine. Those two markets are great and I should go to Dnipro more often than I do.

  3. Jazzngas permalink
    February 20, 2012 7:36 pm

    As our two month stay in St. Petersburg Fl. is about to conclude I have to mention Mazzaro’s. It’s an institution that’s always packed and for good reason. House made fresh pasta, cappuccino bar, bakery, premium meats, wines, unbelievable sandwiches and prepared food only scratches the surface. Mazzaro’s is the standard all others emulate.
    1) Cardona’s comes close on many levels and is simply the best in the Capital District. 2) Roma’s Saratoga. You said it all.
    3) Genoa Imports. Great sandwiches and prepared food. Nice imports. What elevates them above the rest is owner Bob Didio. He’s an old school shopkeeper that makes you feel genuinely welcome and appreciated.

    Other ethnic markets.
    1) Asian Market
    2) Dnipro
    3) Asian Food Market (Colvin Ave.) Haven’t been in a while and not even sure they are still open, but it was my favorite before the Asian Mkt. opened. To be honest it’s kind of hard for me to come up with a third choice.

  4. February 20, 2012 9:21 pm

    I haven’t been to many Italian markets other than Cardona’s, but I have been to Italian markets in major cities, and Cardona’s definitely holds a candle to those spots, which says something. I particularly like that they are not only a full-service butcher, but one that is completely transparent about where they source their meats from. It makes it a good alternative to the co-op and the farmer’s markets. However, this probably gives it candidacy for best butcher more than best Italian market. :)

    As for the other ethnic markets, I know I am in the minority, but I would put Parivar as #1 and the Asian Supermarket at a very very very distant second. Yes, they have a lot of stuff. But the brands they carry are mediocre at best. There was a fantastic Asian market that used to be across from the Supermarket, which recently closed (one can only guess why), and that would have been my #2, had it not closed.

  5. -R. permalink
    February 21, 2012 2:29 pm

    “It smells amazing. And Prinzo’s bakery is right across the street….”

    Yup, and Andy & Sons is just down the street. Seriously, if you’ve never been to Andy’s, you are in for a treat…you have been, haven’t you? While I enjoy Cardona’s vast selection, there’s something a little more genuine about Andy’s from the cramped look to the overwhelming smell (I tend to think Andy’s makes the better sandwich of the two). Also, Andy’s fresh pastas and cured meats are completely drool-worthy. Worth the stop, IMO. As far as the rest of the Italian markets in the area, I agree with the Pelligrino suggestion as well as Ragonese on New Scotland. Both are solid in their approach, but much more limited in scope than Cardona’s. Now I’m hungry.

  6. February 21, 2012 4:46 pm

    “Best ethnic market”? Damn, that’s a broad category. And I have to say, you make me want to try some places, ’cause I don’t believe I’ve ever been to an Italian market, at all, any of them. (And I keep meaning to go to Parivar but haven’t yet.)

    Based on the places I’ve been… well, I don’t have three awesome ones (been to a few that weren’t so great, though). But I’d say:

    1. Asian Supermarket — Huge variety, good prices, and they have the bakery/hot bar, which is a plus.

    2. Dnipro — Big selection of things you just can’t get anywhere else around here.

    • February 28, 2012 3:19 pm

      I want to revise mine, ’cause I found an awesome one yesterday:

      1. Euro Deli and Market in Latham. They have really good sandwiches and hot foods (and they’re cheap, too — I paid six bucks and change for lunch yesterday, and I was stuffed!), and they have a wide selection of Polish/Eastern European goods in a nice, clean, well-laid-out space with good parking. The service is friendly, too. :)

      2. Asian Supermarket
      3. Dnipro

  7. February 21, 2012 4:48 pm

    Y’know, the more I think about this, the more I wonder… maybe you should do a post in which you introduce people to the ethnic markets. I’d find it helpful to hear why I should go there: What are the top three things, say, that I should buy at Cardona’s, if I’ve never been? At the DeFazio’s store? At Dnipro? Etc.?

  8. February 22, 2012 3:03 pm

    I prefer the asian market on Colvin because it’s a lot less expensive than the one on Central, and reliably carries the noodles that I like to stock up on. I was surprised to see Rolf’s not mentioned, because I only know about it from reading the post on it last year :-)

    Parivar is good, and they carry a good variety of brown basmati rices, along with all the good snacks. India Bazaar has super nice service, and is worth checking out as well, though sometimes things can be a little less polished than at Parivar.

  9. Mirdreams permalink
    February 25, 2012 1:07 am

    I also vote for the Asian Supermarket. I used to work in Manhattan’s Chinatown and I prefer it to any of the shops down there because it’s clean and well laid out. Reminds me that it’s time to go stock up on some dumplings.

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