- Walter Novak
- Chef Billy Slaiman and Anna Mavromichalis preside over this jewel box of a store, where you'll want everything you see.
If there are still naysayers who believe that downtown traffic can't support a grocery store, they should pull up a chair with Anna and her dad, the soft-spoken Costas Mavromichalis. The duo opened the 10,000-square-foot market in January, on the ground floor of the Bingham apartment building. Downtowners -- residents and workers alike -- have been pouring through their doorway ever since.
"Dad and I had a feeling we would do well at lunch," Anna says, with a prolonged glance toward the busy checkout counter. She's not being smug; it's the confidence of someone whose hunches are backed up by results.
In fact, Costas, who runs a Convenient Food Mart on Clifton Boulevard that has become a showplace for the company, had been studying the feasibility of launching a downtown grocery store for six years. A 27-year industry vet, he believed location was the critical factor.
"We knew we needed someplace with parking and within walking distance of both workers and residents," he says, adding that he turned down several earlier offers to open downtown because the suggested locations lacked sufficient access. After all, no single neighborhood -- even one as vibrant as the Warehouse District -- can support a grocery store. But when the Bingham approached him last year, the setting looked promising: The upscale apartment's resident population of young professionals could provide a built-in clientele, and plenty of inexpensive, on-street parking existed right outside the door.
Surveys of their potential client base guided the Mavromichalises in choosing the blend of gourmet products and everyday necessities they now stock. (Sushi, they discovered, topped the list of most-wanted prepared food.) Of course, surveys don't pay the rent, and only time would tell whether Constantino's could thrive.
Judging by a recent weekday turnout, the market is enjoying a boom. Some days, in fact, nearly 400 lunchtimers have trooped in for the ready-to-eat selection of soups, salads, sandwiches, and freshly made sushi. There's also the morning crowd, who grab muffins, bagels, or breakfast burritos and a cuppa; after work, they snatch up homemade comforts like meatloaf, lavender-scented roasted turkey breast, and Yukon Gold "smashed" potatoes, piqued with scallions, garlic, and sour cream. Wine and beer buffs stop by for anything from a bottle of Veuve Cliquot to a six-pack of Old Leghumper, and everyday shoppers pick up necessities like cat food, milk, and bars of Venezuelan Chocolates el Rey. (Hey, you've got your necessities and we've got ours.)
Obviously, convenience figures prominently in Constantino's success. Especially for Warehouse District inhabitants, it provides long-missing access to the kind of amenities suburbanites take for granted. Greeting cards, boxed Gorant chocolates, fresh flowers (mostly on weekends), or something from the impressively large wine department -- 1,500 labels and more than 5,000 bottles -- make for great last-minute gift-giving. A sparkling display of Schott Zwiesel crystal stemware and a selection of quality cheeses can provide impetus for an impromptu cocktail party. And should the urge strike to head out to Cain Park, Blossom, or Mentor Headlands for some spur-of-the-moment frolicking, chef Billy Slaiman will be happy to put together a picnic, perhaps featuring his freshly made fruit cups, pasta salads, and spinach-and-feta-stuffed pork tenderloin.
Slaiman, a self-taught chef who joined Constantino's in March, is in charge of the market's large, laid-out kitchen and nascent catering operations. While he entered the culinary world through the back door, the former director of visual merchandising for several of downtown's doomed department stores earned his toque the hard way, through lots of hands-on labor. His first move after leaving merchandising was to launch Billy's, his eponymous neighborhood café on Clifton Boulevard, which he ran for seven years. Then he moved on to Gallucci's Italian Foods market and finally to Marigold Catering, where he served as food stylist and corporate caterer.
Slaiman boasts a global repertoire that ranges from juicy, jazzy black-bean-and-salsa wraps to breathtakingly buttery, phyllo-enclosed spanakopita, which we snared one morning straight from the ovens. (It was magnificent.) He also turns out vegetarian stuffed grape leaves, Boston clam chowder, and homey tomato-spinach soup. And he recently began whipping up parfaits of yogurt, granola, and fresh fruit, which shimmer on the taste buds like summer dew.
Still, only about half the prepared foods are made in-house. Among those made off-premises, for example, is lemon-almond chicken salad. We tried it in a wrap, where, despite its promising nomenclature, it proved bland and one-dimensional. Salisbury steak, however, scored a bull's-eye, with two thick slabs of meat and a satiny, if slightly salty, beef gravy. On the side, both mac and cheese and green beans were vaguely overcooked, but good-tasting; and if the homey, straightforward meal wasn't exactly gourmet fare, it was flavorful, satisfying, and a good value at only $5.99.
Of course, the first thing shoppers usually notice upon entering Constantino's is the curvaceous glass display cases, crammed with cheesecakes, tortes, brownies, and cream puffs. None is made from scratch, in-house, but a full-time staff baker "enhances" the ready-made products, adding fillings, frostings, and other sweet surprises. A towering, chocolate-frosted cream puff looked downright decadent, although the "puff" turned out to be stale, and the filling was gluey pastry cream, not the vastly superior whipped cream. But a giant, fudgy brownie, enhanced with German chocolate frosting and a cherry on top, was a chocoholic's fantasy come true: dense, chewy, not too sugary, and so good, we were compelled to stop by the next day for another one.
While all the prepared foods can be ordered to go, settling in at one of the handful of tables near the front door couldn't seem more urbane. (There's also a little sidewalk dining area, shaded by umbrellas.) Eating inside the market also offers an opportunity to take in some of the warm, sophisticated decor, an eras-spanning mélange of quarter-sawn oak paneling, wooden floors, and colorful computer-generated murals.
With metal shelving banned from the premises on aesthetic grounds, staffers create display space out of artful arrangements of baskets, crates, and wooden tables. Built-in wine cabinetry has the warm patina and solid presence of fine furniture. And beneath the dramatic lighting from more than 50 shop-style ceiling lights, a sense of humor is prominently exhibited: A line of food-and-drink-related bon mots encircling the large room at ceiling level, for instance, includes Miss Piggy's advice to "Never eat more than you weigh." And rather than a "Frozen Foods" banner identifying the freezer cases, a sign simply advises: "Really Really Really Cold Food."
As successful as they seem to be, the Mavromichalises claim not to be satisfied: Now they want to see Constantino's become the hub of a new downtown community. To that end, they've begun offering occasional free wine-tastings, accompanied by Slaiman's handsomely plated hors d'oeuvres, and live weekend performances from notable area musicians (including the Joe DeJarnette Jazz Ensemble, which entertained on a recent Friday night).
"We want people to come down, listen to music, have a bite to eat -- just be present," Costas says. He knows that, for his store -- and for downtown -- to prosper, a lively street scene is essential. "It makes all the difference in the world as to how people see the district. We want to do our part. We want to make a buzz."