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Racked Reviews: Balducci's

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Racked's reviews are penned by Aaron Bernstein, a.k.a. The Shophound. Today, he stops into fancy grocery store Balducci's.

Photos by Krieger

We are writing to you from the mezzanine café at Balducci's lavish flagship opened last year in the former home of a bank at 14th Street and 8th Avenue. With a coffered, arched ceiling, the gilt-and-marble-lined food hall is more palace than market. It is a far cry from the dark maze that was the original Balducci's on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village. Dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers will complain that it's not the same, but change is the nature of the universe, and its very existence defies those that thought the store was dead when it was turned into a Citarella in 2003. A small, less charming branch on West 66th Street quietly held the standard until Balducci's triumphantly reappeared downtown last year as part of a 10-store chain currently owned by Bear Stearns Merchant Banking.

Does it still measure up to its old standards? Well, the standards have changed, thanks to the Whole Foods revolution. Balducci's 2.0 does a good job of stocking the premier brands that have now become more familiar, and its legendary cheese counter is still enticing, if not as impressive as the vast selections of Whole Foods, or even Fairway. In fact, the store does a good job within the limitations of its size. The produce, even on a Sunday afternoon, still looked fresh and well tended. Now that it is a chain, the store has added a wider range of private label goods, but unlike its competitors, Balducci's positions its store brands closer to the top of the price range. What's missing here is not merchandise or atmosphere but the bustle of customers we used to see regularly down on 6th Avenue. It's too bad because Balducci's has plenty to offer a luxury-minded food shopper. While never low, the prices here are no longer the most exorbitant in the city. That honor now goes to Dean & Deluca. Though they can't really compete with the breadth of offerings one block west at the Chelsea Market complex, they have done a good job editing their offerings to fit a "jewel box" concept of a food store, and the Wi-Fi enabled dining section upstairs makes an excellent alternative to a bustling Starbuck's for anyone who needs to catch up on some work.

What we loved: The well-edited selection of high-end gourmet products and prepared foods. Come at the right time and there is an abundance of samples. The store brand shortbread round cookies are particularly good.

What it lacked: Those shortbread rounds are over $6 for about a half dozen. Not for the penny-pinching crowd.

Décor: It's the most opulent food store in the city, or possibly anywhere.

Service: Very good, probably helped by the lack of crowds, but that means fewer lines for you. The deli counter will make excellent sandwiches to order.