Above Water

Above Water

L ocal landmarks come and go—and once gone, they seldom get reborn.

By this and other measures, Woodbridge’s Brookside Farm Market, built across the span of a babbling brook, is exceptional. Stroll into the tiny grocery on a late-fall day and what immediately strikes you is the vibrancy of the produce: fat Honeycrisp apples, golden pears, whole watermelons, pristine grapefruits, luscious tomatoes, spiky pineapples. A respectably wide selection of vegetables is stocked mostly in open-air refrigerator cases, including crowns of broccoli and cauliflower, corn on the cob and potatoes, escarole and kale and arugula, summer squash and zucchini, bundled asparagus and topped carrots.

Given how good it looks, it’s hard to believe more of this stock isn’t local. In fact, much of it comes from far, far away—Florida, California, Georgia, Texas, Maine, Canada—yet still gets replenished daily by Shapiro Produce, a wholesale company in Everett, Mass. The rest is hand-picked by Brookside owner Mike Longo from J.P. Jarjura and Sons Co. in Waterbury, which he says is “the only wholesale produce supplier left in this part of the state.”

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Unless you count some of the local farms themselves, which sometimes wholesale directly during harvest months. Brookside’s in-season local produce is selected with loving care by Longo’s go-to Connecticut farm expert, Hamden’s Henry R. Testa. “I give him the list of what I need the night before,” says Longo, “and he knows exactly where to go to get the best,” which can mean venturing further afield than New Haven County. Last summer, the market’s corn on the cob, from Burnham Farms in East Windsor, won raves. “It was the best I’d had in years,” Longo says, “sweet, tender, full.” Other customers love the shop’s greens. “People tell me they buy a head of our lettuce and can use every single leaf,” says Rosa Verrastro, Brookside’s manager (and Longo’s niece).

Even with testimonials like that, it’s lucky that the store is still with us. On August 4, 2012, at 12:30 p.m., a large section of concrete floor collapsed into the water beneath the building. Longo says he knew the disaster was coming, having seen an odd shift in the building and heard some suspicious noises that morning. “Just before it happened, there were two customers in the store who I asked to leave,” he says. “Then I stepped outside, locked the door and watched the floor cave in.”

Up until that moment, the little farm market had been a fixture in town for 80-plus years. First established as a simple produce stand, it was initially run by Ida Amato, girlfriend of Woodbridge farmer Vito Luciani. In 1931, it became a brick-and-mortar store, run for the next 50-plus years by various Luciani family members and relatives. It opened each year at Easter—when certain local harvests started trickling in—and closed just after Thanksgiving, for which the Lucianis sold farm-raised turkeys.

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As Woodbridge grew from a small farming town to a more diversified residential community, the store kept pace with those changes. Luciani’s cousin Simon Donato, current owner of Simon’s Greenhouses in Bethany, owned Brookside during the ’70s, when supermarkets were on the rise. To survive, he realized his seasonal business had to stand out. “The main goal,” he says, “was always giving customers that special reason to stop in.” Before shutting down for the winter, that included selling Christmas trees he’d personally harvested in Vermont.

This approach also worked for Longo for nearly 30 years. Previously a store owner in Waterbury, he bought Brookside in 1984 on the recommendation of his friend Mr. Testa. When the business literally crashed, Longo hoped he could simply patch the damaged part of the shop’s floor and keep working. Instead, he learned he’d have to rebuild the entire foundation—and install a new floor, new walls, new wiring and new plumbing, at a cost of roughly $125,000. “It would have been easier to raze the place and rebuild,” he says. However, changes to Woodbridge zoning laws since the original construction of Brookside had designated that part of Amity Road a noncommercial district, making the idea “noncompliant.” Says Longo, “Brookside is allowed to exist because it was ‘grandfathered in’ to this area.” So while the inside was being reworked, the outer shell continued to stand.

Other owners might have walked away, but Longo stuck it out for the nearly two-year-long renovation. When Brookside had its grand reopening in June, it did so as a year-round business for the first time in its history, putting just as much emphasis on specialty foods as it does on produce, stocking locally made items like Swords into Plowshares honey (produced in New Haven), Joe’s Shack maple syrup (Bethany), Four Flours cookies (Woodbridge) and Venice Bakery stuffed breads (Hamden), among others. Non-local specialty items include Sclafani preserves, Bellwether Farms sheep’s milk Yogurt, Drunken Goat cheese and Bellantani Italian dry-cured meats. “We’re always open to additional suggestions,” says Verrastro.

One Brookside signature is its prepared meal section, featuring dishes cooked every day in the store’s kitchen by Frank Pepe, who’s no relation to the New Haven pizza family. Pepe turns out Italian-style, refrigerated, $6.99 entrees like escarole and beans, broccoli rabe with chicken sausage, penne primavera and can’t-keep-it-on-the-shelves summer squash lasagna, as well as some popular stuffed artichokes. The lasagna features no actual pasta and, like the other items mentioned, is an effective way for the shop to make use of produce that isn’t selling quickly enough on its own.

In the future, Longo would like to add to the store’s menu of these dishes, adding take-out sandwiches and more organic and gluten-free options. He also intends to stock staples like sugar, flour and paper towels, and is hatching plans for taking holiday gift basket orders this month. Though Brookside is back on its feet, he frets about how it will fare during its first winter season, “especially if it’s like last winter, when it snowed every other day. People don’t go out when it snows.”

Maybe not in a car. But I suspect some Woodbridgians would be willing to walk to Brookside, snow or not, for that cheesy, spicy, sublime squash lasagna, or those stuffed artichokes, or some nice, ripe tomatoes.

Brookside Farm Market
324 Amity Rd, Woodbridge (map)
Mon-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 9am-6pm
(203) 298-0659

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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A former senior editor at Connecticut Magazine, Pat Grandjean is a cultural omnivore who loves everything from Beck and “Doc Martin” to Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino. She currently spends much of her free time volunteering at the New Haven Animal Shelter and cleaning apartment closets.

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