With its designer boutiques and jewelry stores, but almost nowhere to buy groceries, does Madison Avenue qualify as something of an upscale food desert?
And if so, does that make Gentile’s Fine Foods, at Madison and East 79th Street, a balmy oasis upon this gilded but parched plain? A fresh water port filled with Pellegrino and framed by trees bearing the finest produce?
That was the conversation I was having with myself as I walked home along Madison one evening.
I can’t remember what product I was craving.
If it had been a canary yellow diamond or a Carolina Herrera gown, I’d have been in good shape. But since my needs were somewhat more pedestrian—perhaps cashews, ginger ale or Tide Plus Bleach Alternative—I seemed out of luck.
But just as I was about to abandon hope and succumb to the uncertain charms of Lexington Avenue, which still has a supermarket or two, I spotted the hearth-like warmth of Gentile’s shining in the distance.
How it manages to survive, I have no idea.
“It’s a loyalty thing,” explained Anthony Gentile, the store’s owner, referring to his bespoke clientele.
Mr. Gentile’s grandfather opened the store in 1927 at Lexington and 92nd Street. The operation moved to Madison Avenue in the late ’60s and has been relocating ever since, but only within a one-block radius.
“1065, 1045, now we’re at 1041,” Mr. Gentile explained.
He refers to his longtime Fifth and Park Avenue customers by address rather than by name. Seven out of 10 place their orders by telephone.
“We stand behind our service,” the 64-year-old Mr. Gentile said matter-of-factly.
“You have the best produce,” Jordan Gentile, Anthony’s son and the fourth generation to work in the business, told his father. “Fairway [Market] can’t touch what you get.”
“They could,” Mr. Gentile said about his competitor. “But it’s very personalized. We still wrap our fruit.”
Mr. Gentile said his grandfather would turn in his grave if he saw the way fruits and vegetables are handled these days.
“It’s a lot of work,” he acknowledged. “Don’t get me wrong. If I had to do it again, a 7-Eleven manager might be easier.”
Whether or not Fairway’s produce is competitive, Gentile’s just offers a special level of service. Like delivering a three-item order to your door in 10 minutes. Or not batting an eye if a customer desires bread from E.A.T., across the street.
“I go to Eli’s two-three times a day,” Jordan Gentile said. “We’re basically food shopping for people.”
Clients over the years have even included West Siders, such as comedian Steve Martin and Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman, according to Anthony Gentile.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg , who lives around the corner, has dropped by as well.
“When Spitzer was governor,” Mr. Gentile recalled, “he and Bloomberg used to have their Saturday meeting here over coffee.”
He added, “We always called Eliot, Eliot.”
The grocer pointed in the direction of the deli counter, where the politicians held their informal conclaves.
Or rather where the deli counter used to be. The store underwent a renovation not long ago and looks somewhat more streamlined.
But you hardly notice. Because taking up most of the oxygen in the room, outshining even the $2.99 Sumo oranges in the front window, and the excellent white-fish salad sandwiches, is Mr. Gentile himself. He’s a large, perpetual motion machine who exudes a gruff charisma while filling orders and stocking shelves.
No one seems to appreciate his effort more than his 26-year-old son.
“He’s kind of hard of hearing,” Jordan Gentile confided. “He needs a hearing aid and won’t get one. He needs a knee replacement and won’t get one.”
The younger Mr. Gentile didn’t share the medical histories of other employees, but they might be suffering some wear and tear, too.
One of them dates back to his grandfather’s era. Three others joined the store around the same time his father did in 1980.
Even Marie Gentile, Mr. Gentile’s mother who labored alongside his father on 92nd Street—there’s a picture of her behind the counter—still drops by twice a week.
“It’s like a social club for her,” said Mr. Gentile, who was born in the neighborhood—at Lenox Hill Hospital—but moved to the Bronx and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. “I didn’t want to work here,” he remembered. “I needed to pay some bills.”
But the early ’80s were an exciting time to enter the food business. Stores such as Dean and DeLuca and the Silver Palate were opening and spurring what would become a food revolution.
“I went down there and met all these people,” Mr. Gentile said, among them Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca at their Prince Street store. “It was interesting back then.”
Gentile’s could benefit from a little more space. And Mr. Gentile said a real-estate investor client—the grocer identified him by his Fifth Avenue address—told him he’d help him move to Third Avenue where he could spread out.
“Basically you don’t need to be right across the street,” from your clientele, Mr. Gentile said. “You think about it. But you’ve been on the avenue for 45 years.”
Fortunately, it doesn’t sound like he’ll be moving any time soon.
Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org