2011-08-25 / Other News

Casa Fruti - Fruit & Veggie Market Fills A Need In Old Mill Basin

By Jonathan Gies

Nothing like a fruit market storefront to brighten up Avenue N! Nothing like a fruit market storefront to brighten up Avenue N! The stretch of Avenue N along the East 50s in Old Mill Basin is a bustling, diverse neighborhood, with a healthy variety of stores and businesses.

But one thing it was missing, said Jaclyn Santana, was a fruit market.

So two months ago Santana, 29, along with her parents, Ralph and Marianne Defilippo, both 51, decided to fill that gap.

Ralph is a seasoned butcher, and his wife Marianne works as a chef for the public schools. Growing up between them, Santana was well acquainted with the culinary world. “Food is our life,” she grinned.

Seeing the neighborhood’s need, and wanting to try something new and different, the family opened Casa Fruti between East 58th and East 59th streets at the beginning of this summer.

The new store hit the ground running, with customers immediately flowing in.

As this cascade of colors indicates, Casa Fruti has something for everyone. As this cascade of colors indicates, Casa Fruti has something for everyone. “We’re surprised by how quickly it’s taken off,” Santana said.

“People come in and say to me, ‘Oh yeah, a fruit store. That’s what we’re missing around here,’” Defilippo added.

Casa Fruti has a wide selection available for different elements of the community. Caribbean customers are happy to stock up on mangoes, papaya, pineapple, and kiwi; Italian families head for staples like spinach, escarole and broccoli rabe.

Originally intended to be simply a fruit and vegetable mart, Casa Fruti has generated such a strong neighborhood response in just two months that the store has already expanded its horizons. Since opening, the family has set up a salad bar, with freshly grilled vegetables every day, and also serves paninis and stuffed breads — ordered fresh from Sal & Jerry’s Bakery on 20th Avenue — to eager and ever-expanding lunch and dinner crowds. “I have to make more every day,” Santana said of the prepared foods.

Ralph Defilippo and daughter Jaclyn Santana are proud of how quickly their store is becoming a neighborhood staple. Ralph Defilippo and daughter Jaclyn Santana are proud of how quickly their store is becoming a neighborhood staple. “The juice bar has been great,” she added, indicating the wide variety of smoothies and colorful fruit juices mixed on the spot. On Friday and Saturday mornings in particular, long lines of thirsty customers flock to the store for a pina colada or a banana berry smoothie. Apopular hit has been the bubble teas, which contain chewy balls of boiled tapioca. “They’re about the consistency of Gummi Bears,” Santana said. “They’re just kind of in there for fun.”

Plus, almost immediately, the store branched out into another area, based purely on customer request. “People asked us about catering,” Santana said, “which is something I didn‘t expect.” So now the family has eagerly found itself catering for block parties and small gatherings alike, the list growing as the weeks have gone by.

“I was surprised,” Santana said of the store’s rapid expansion. “Since it’s summer, I thought it would be slower.”

Defilippo agreed that Casa Fruti has been quick to catch on. “We get a lot of repeat customers,” he said, proud to note that local residents no longer have to make the trip to a supermarket to pick up a pomegranate or some fresh spices.

Those customers have been an enthusiastic group.

“The neighborhood’s starting to dictate to us what they want,” Defilippo said. “‘Why don’t you try this, why don’t you try that?’ They’re giving us ideas.”

And more of those ideas are making it into the mix. Coming on the heels of the salad bar, the wraps and paninis, the juice bar and the catering, the family is about to install a frozen yogurt machine. In addition, they are preparing a coffee and soup station, complete with soups du jour to offer up to the bustling lunch crowds. (“My mother makes delicious lentil soup,” Santana said.)

There are also plans to start offering more organic foods, although the store is starting small in this area. “You try to stay affordable in today’s economy,” Defilippo explained.

The family is confident that Casa Fruti’s place in the neighborhood will continue to grow. “We have room for expansion,” Defilippo said, indicating the backyard area that could one day be occupied by additional store space. “Both inside and out.”

Every morning, Defilippo grills a fresh round of vegetables. His wife Marianne works the front when not busy at the I.S. 78 lunchroom. Santana prepares the salad bar, wraps and paninis and, along with other staffers, prepares the juices and teas.

“I find the customers warm and friendly,” Santana said. “I try to introduce myself to everyone who comes in. Give it that personal touch.”

There will be plenty of opportunity for introductions on Labor Day, when Casa Fruti will be throwing a big taste-fest all day long. From 10:00am to 5:00pm, the whole neighborhood is welcome to come on down and try the many things the store has to offer— from the bubble teas to the fresh veggies off the grill.

“Come in and say hello,” Defilippo invited.

“And enjoy,” Marianne smiled.

Casa Fruti is located at 5815 Avenue N, between E 58 and E 59 Streets. Call them at (718) 531-0011.

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