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Food: Best Markets

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Whether you want mizuna leaves or white-truffle oil, the pickings are plentiful, with gourmet markets going up around the city as fast as condos. Everyone from the Napoleonic Eli Zabar to Greenmarkets sprouting like weeds is competing for booming business from discerning foodies.

Before the megastores, family shops offered old-world flavor; the butcher knew your name and your cut of beef. These mom-and-pop shops still thrive in the outer boroughs, but in Manhattan, they're an endangered species. Faicco's Pork Store (260 Bleecker Street; 243-1974) sells hard-to-find beef tripe, while next door, Aphrodisia (264 Bleecker Street; 989-6440) offers exotic dried fare, from lobster mushrooms to coffee oils. And the longstanding anchor, Murray's Cheese Shop (257 Bleecker Street; 243-3289), is a favorite among the nearby Cornelia Street chefs. "Fairway may have a bigger selection, but Murray knows cheese," declares local culinary hero Mario Batali of Pó and Babbo. Further north, Ninth Avenue offers plenty of ethnic fare at rock-bottom prices. The West African market is the only place in Manhattan to stock up for your next calypso party (cocoyams and Nigerian beer), while a few blocks north, the dreary-looking counter at Salumeria Biellese (378 Eighth Avenue, at 29th Street; 736-7376) sells the best salamis and sopressettas outside of Italy.

The farmers' market movement has made harried urbanites into kinder, gentler foragers. Chef Daniel Boulud loves the Union Square market in the springtime, when produce is at its peak and it puts him in mind of the markets of Provence. "Where else are you going to buy lettuce that is still warm from the ground?" asks Nick Nagurney, a chef at vegan-friendly Kate's Joint. Where else will you find Jurassic-size turnips and purple and blue potatoes? Both Batali and Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern consider Balducci's (424 Sixth Avenue; 673-2600) a temple. It's where professional and amateur chefs alike find divine inspiration in, say, seven different varieties of Japanese melon. The quality of the food -- from produce to the prepared foods -- is stunning.

Gourmet Garage (many locations), however, is the gourmand's answer to Costco. David Page, chef of Home and Drovers Tap Room, explains: "Before the Garage, you had to take a number and wait in line for your cheese and dried fruits. The Garage put everything in containers so you could just get it and go. It made gourmet foods convenient, and now you see Balducci's and Fairway prepackaging their foods."

The Upper West Side's Zabar's-Fairway-Citarella axis inspires deep loyalties. Zabar's (2245 Broadway, at 80th Street; 787-2000) is the gruff old uncle, fighting off its upstart rivals. Fairway (2127 Broadway, at 74th Street, 595-1888; 133 Twelfth Avenue, at 132nd Street; 234-3883) fancies itself the people's market -- reasonable prices, enormous selections, and riotous Saturday afternoons when the silver-bullet shopping carts serve as weapons for phalanxes of turbaned shoppers (Fairway guru Steven Jenkins's cheese department is unparalleled). Citarella (2135 Broadway, at 75th Street; 1313 Third Avenue, at 75th Street; both phones 874-0383) still has the best fish around. And the rule of thumb for many local shoppers is to buy your fish and meat at Citarella and everything else at Fairway.

Eli Zabar's new East Side outpost, Eli's Manhattan (1411 Third Avenue, at 80th Street; 717-8100), is the slickest market in the city, with marble floors and a hotel-lobby-like magazine stand in the glass-walled foyer -- a far cry from rustic Zabar's. "He's a marketing genius," says David Page. "He constantly reinvents his stores. The new place will change. He'll see what his customers want." Indeed, they're already lining up to pay $11 for a slice of wild-mushroom lasagne and $8 for a pound of Shropshire blue cheese.


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