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Specialty supermarkets on Long Island: 10 stores worth the trip

Grocery shopping has always been one of my favorite pastimes. Even if all I need is a quart of milk, I’ll always take a shopping cart with me just in case I come across something new and exciting on the way to the dairy case.

Long Island’s era of specialty supermarkets dates back to 1996, when Fresh Fields (later to become Whole Foods) opened in Manhasset and Trader Joe's opened in Commack. Those two national chains have been joined by imports from Germany (Lidl), Connecticut (Stew Leonard’s) and New York City (Food Bazaar, Maharaja Farmers Market and H Mart) as well as homegrown players such as Uncle Giuseppe’s, North Shore Farms and Giunta’s Meat Farms.

Here's what you shouldn't miss at them, along with some best buys.

North Shore Farms

WHERE: Great Neck, Port Washington, Glen Cove, Mineola, North Bellmore, Commack, Hauppauge

WHAT TO KNOW: In 2003, Nick Katopodis took over an existing Port Washington supermarket and renamed it North Shore Farms. He kept the name even as the chain expanded to points east, west and south. This is a well-rounded, full-service store, tightly packed with fresh produce, prime meat and upscale groceries.

WHAT TO BUY: North Shore Farms' in-store bakery goes above and beyond with bread — baguettes, focaccia and, especially, prosciutto bread, made with trims and ends from the well-stocked deli counter. Befitting its owner’s heritage, the store always stocks a few brands of Greek extra-virgin olive oil. Right now, the lineup includes award-winning Eleones, a single-variety (Koroneiki) oil from Crete. A three-liter can will only set you back $19.99. Since 2016, North Shore Farms’ fish program has been run by Joe Catalano, owner of John's Farms in Plainview, and it is on a par with the Island’s very best seafood markets. Whole fish might include striped bass, red mullet, butter fish, red snapper, porgies and brook trout and there are usually fillets and / or steaks of halibut, swordfish, grouper, Montauk tilefish, blue fish and more, plus local oysters and clams (including hard-to-find steamers). Everything is hopping fresh and extremely well priced. (If you’re making a fish stock, you can also find heads and frames.)

Trader Joe’s

WHERE: Hewlett, Oceanside, Merrick, Plainview, Lake Grove, Commack, Garden City

WHAT TO KNOW: In a rebuke to the then-ascendant bulk-food trend, Trader Joe’s specializes in packages — bags, cans and jars reign while almost all of the fresh produce and meat is precut and sealed in plastic. Prices are low since the California-based national chain (530 stores and counting) buys directly from manufacturers and much of what the store sells is under its own label. Part of the store's charm is the Hawaiian-shirted "crew members" who always ask at the checkout counter, "Did you find everything you were looking for? " And sometimes, in fact, you haven't. Your favorite product may go on a break, or vanish altogether (missing you, opera cake).

WHAT TO BUY: I’d shop at Trader Joe’s if all they had were nuts — more than a dozen types of almonds alone. My house coffee is their Five Country Organic Fair Trade blend and I’ve fooled guests into thinking I’m a better cook than I am by serving the frozen Tarte d’Alsace, topped ham and Gruyère. Frozen fruits and vegetables are terrific; if you ever cook with canned artichoke hearts, please switch to Trader Joe’s frozen ones immediately. A new favorite is the Columbus Salame Secchi, as suave a sopressata as I’ve sampled.

Giunta’s Meat Farms

WHERE: Farmingdale, Northport, Commack,, Hauppauge, Bohemia, Holbrook, Lake Ronkonkoma, Patchogue, Port Jefferson

WHAT TO KNOW: In the 1990s, Philip Giunta and Peter Levantino took over the venerable LI chain, Meat Farms, converted other supermarkets and christened the new chain Giunta’s (pronounced "Junta’s") Meat Farms. True to its history, it’s a fine place for meat. The butcher counter offers a good view of meat handlers who will custom cut anything for you. But the owners also expanded the produce department so that it now occupies about a third of every store, according to Peter’s son, Joe. The selections of Italian imports and beer, imported and domestic, were also strengthened.

WHAT TO BUY: There’s no better selection of well-priced produce on Long Island than at Meat Farms. On a recent visit I saw regular bunches of broccoli, broccoli crowns and local broccoli with the stems still attached. All this in addition to items you rarely see in mainstream supermarkets: cactus pads (nopales), banana flowers, tamarind pods, water coconuts (unripe fruits that have more liquid inside), flowering cauliflower, epazote and purslane (sold under its Spanish name, verdolaga), fresh chili peppers of every color and size, raw olives and fresh dates (in season). Many of the vegetables are also trimmed and packaged (alone or in combinations) for convenience. In addition to great meat service, you’ll also find most parts of the pig, cow, lamb and chicken, especially those cuts — feet, tails, necks — that take well to long, slow, wintertime braises.

Food Bazaar

WHERE: Brentwood and Westbury (plus one right over the Queens line in Douglaston)

WHAT TO KNOW: When it comes to international groceries, you usually have to pick a destination, or at least a continent. But you can take the grand tour at Food Bazaar, a truly international chain that tailors its stock to the community it serves. Founded in Queens in 1998, Food Bazaar already operated a store in Brentwood when, in 2020, it took over the Fairway in Westbury. That store has retained much of Fairway’s "gourmet" appeal whereas Brentwood has more than twice the quantity of groceries from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia.

WHAT TO BUY: Every few yards of Food Bazaar’s aisles is like visiting a different country’s grocery. The Peruvian department carries multiple brands of colorful pepper pastes: mellow yellow ají amarillo, garnet aji panca, brick-red rocoto; Guatemala offers an object lesson in pickles: In addition to jars of mixed vegetables, there’s cabbage and spicy green mango and picaya, the immature frond of a palm that looks like a multi-fingered alien hand. There are separate displays for Chinese and Japanese soy sauces, Vietnamese and Thai fish sauces, and plenty of Korean gochujang, the spicy red chili paste with elements of sweetness and fermentation that is the condiment of the moment. Then there are the products that transcend nationality and must be shelved accordingly. The rice department, for example, features brands loved by Haitian, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian and American cooks. The produce department is a botanical metaphor for world harmony, where karela (the distinctively warty Indian bitter melon) reclines next to artichokes; the serrated-leaf Mexican herb culantro takes in the same periodic misting as the Brussels sprouts in the next basket.

H Mart

WHERE: Great Neck, Williston Park, Jericho

WHAT TO KNOW: H Mart was founded in 1982 in Queens as "Han Ah Reum" (Korean for "One Arm Full of Groceries"). Nominally Korean, it’s as close to a pan-Asian superstore as we have on Long Island — though Korean specialties such as kimchi, frozen fish balls and beef sliced paper thin for bulgogi are given pride of place in their respective departments. The Jericho store offers more than 60,000 square feet of lush produce, very-fresh fish, far-flung condiments, exotic sweets and enough noodles to reach Orient Point.

WHAT TO BUY: If H Mart only sold produce it would be worth the trip just to make the acquaintance of raw ingredients you may have only seen cooked: bunches of 3-foot-long burdock roots, boxes of sour tamarind pods (indispensable for Thai cooking), giant jackfruits cut into 6-pound hunks. There are dozens of greens like Chinese broccoli (gai lan), yu choy (slightly thinner), choy sum (similar, but with white stems), bok choy (stubby with white stems) and aa choy (stem lettuce). On any given day, you are likely to see dozens of whole fish, from carp to croaker. There's fresh, and then there's live: blue crabs twitch in their tub; Dungeness crabs lumber in their tank; conch just waits patiently. There’s a great selection of frozen dumplings and buns that you need only steam, boil or pan fry at home to come pretty close to fresh. I have a soft spot for the housewares aisles where I have bought everything from cotton slippers to teapots. And there’s no better Korean food on Long Island than in H Mart’s food court.

Lidl

WHERE: With 21 stores on Long Island, from Franklin Square to Riverhead, there’s probably one near you.

WHAT TO KNOW:Unquestionably, the main advantage the Germany-based Lidl has over traditional Long Island supermarkets is price. While prices at Lidl are markedly lower than what you’d expect to pay other grocery stores, selection is also drastically reduced. A traditional supermarket stocks about 30,000-40,000 different items; at Lidl the number is 3,500. Much of the difference is due to Lidl’s relative paucity of brand names: Some categories, such as mayonnaise, might have two or three name brands in addition to the store brand; other categories, such as paper goods, feature only Lidl labels.

WHAT TO BUY: As you peruse the merchandise at Lidl, you’ll notice products bearing the label "Preferred Selection," often with a flag appearing below the type. Lidl considers these to be premium items; most are imported from Europe where they must pass muster with shoppers in their country of origin. Thus, the Prosciutto di Parma package adorned with the five-pointed crown really is salt-cured ham from Parma; the Black Forest ham is really from Baden-Württemberg in Germany. Tart cherry fruit spread from Germany, traditionally made bronze-die spaghetti from Italy, cultured butter from Ireland and single-origin chocolate bars from Peru and Madagascar are other items that are now regular purchases. At the other end of the spectrum, Lidl is also where you will always find Duke’s mayonnaise (the Hellmann’s of the South) and Red Lobster biscuit mix.

Stew Leonard’s

WHERE: East Meadow and Farmingdale

WHAT TO KNOW: When Stew Leonard’s opened its Farmingdale store in 2016, 25,000 people showed up on the first day. With seven stores in the tristate area, this Connecticut-based chain founded in 1969 makes acolytes out of its customers, who thrill to its unique design and product mix. Kids love the Disneyland-inspired animatronic animals that perform Stew-themed ditties throughout the store which, like Ikea, has a single one-way aisle that leads shoppers through every department.

WHAT TO BUY: You go to Stew’s for the experience and for your kids’ amusement. (Seniors have the store to themselves every morning from 7 to 8 a.m.) Grocery options here are narrow — about 2,200 items. That means 12 breakfast cereals, 10 salad dressings, five olive oils, four brands of pasta. But Stew Leonard Jr.’s reputation rests on every store-branded product; they tend to be very good. Pastries and breads come out of the on-site (and in-view) bakery all day long; don’t miss the brioche loves and buns, olive bread, chewy chocolate-pecan cookies, fresh doughnuts and signature "snowball" rolls. Potato chips are also kettle-fried throughout the day, a rare chance to get fresh chips. If you buy $100 worth of groceries you get a free soft-serve cone but why not treat yourself to one even if you spent less?

Uncle Giuseppe’s

WHERE: Port Washington, East Meadow, Massapequa, Melville, North Babylon, Smithtown, Port Jefferson Station

WHAT TO KNOW: Uncle Giuseppe's got its start in 1998, when three produce wholesalers, Thomas Barresi and brothers Phillip and Carl Del Prete, established an Italian market in East Meadow. That little store, crammed with merchandise, is still there but is dwarfed by the other locations. All, however, share the same exuberant spirit: Trompe l'oeil Corinthian columns support a ceiling decorated with a cloud-dotted blue sky, murals depict scenes of the old country. Uncle Giuseppe’s combines the breadth of a regular supermarket with Italian imports, prepared foods, cheese and sausages you expect from a pork store.

WHAT TO BUY: Homesick Italians will appreciate the deep selection of imported beverages, from Fiuggi sparkling water to Stappi sodas, plus cookies and biscuits. There are always multiple brands of imported San Marzano tomatoes and, among a slew of Italian pastas, my favorite gluten-free brand, Le Veneziane. Uncle Giuseppe’s does a predictably good job with Italian cheeses both imported (look for the Robiola Bosina, a lighter, fruitier alternative to Brie) and fresh (mozzarella is made throughout the day). The salumi selection boasts not only prosciutto and pancetta but their more refined siblings, culatello (from the pig’s thigh) and guanciale (jowl).

Whole Foods

WHERE: Manhasset, Garden City, Jericho, Massapequa, Commack, Lake Grove

WHAT TO KNOW: The genius of Whole Foods is its seamless marriage of the organic and the exotic. The selection of organic foods is unsurpassed by any other store, yet it lacks the crunchy taint of the classic "health-food shop." The Texas-based chain is an equally good source for the imported, the artisanally produced and the special diet, be it gluten-free or dairy-free. Whole Foods is often the first supermarket on Long Island to stock innovative new products. Since Amazon bought the company in 2017, prices have come down a bit and Prime members can take an extra 10% off of sale items. The stores are consistently well designed and well maintained.

WHAT TO BUY: With no real weak links in its selection, Whole Foods is probably the most well-rounded of all the markets. It not only favors organic produce, but local as well. The butcher counter is one of the only places to get grass-fed beef on Long Island and the vast dairy selection comprises local dairies such as Ronnybrook Farm and Sky Top Organics (for unhomogenized cream) and alternative milks from goat to oat. Each store bakes its own bread but also sells loaves from top New York bakeries such as Balthazar, Orwashers and Pain D'Avignon. The chain has a commitment to fine cheese and, while there may not be anyone manning the cheese counter, you’ll always find treasures such as French Bleu d'Auvergne and Epoisses, Italian Taleggio and Spanish Cabrales plus the domestic stars Mt. Tam (from Cowgirl Creamery in Marin County, California) and St. Stephen from Four Fat Fowl (from New York’s Hudson Valley).

Maharajah Farmers Market

WHERE: HIcksville and New Hyde Park

WHAT TO KNOW: With two stores on LI (and one in Queens), Maharaja can’t compete for dominance with the other two Indo-Pak supermarkets in Hicksville, Patel Brothers (a national chain with 10 stores in the metropolitan area alone) or Apna Bazar (eight local stores), but it’s a comfortable, attractive store that also stocks goods from Central Asia and the Middle East, as well as Western groceries and produce.

WHAT TO BUY: If you’re an Indian or Pakistani cook — or want to become one — everything you need is here, from fresh curry leaves to jars of ghee (clarified butter). But vegetarians and flexitarians who are looking to widen their repertoires will appreciate the vast range of pulses and grains, from basmati rice in 25-pound burlap sacks to every type of dried bean you’ve ever dreamed of. Indians are masters of spice and Maharaja stocks all of them, from asafetida to za’atar here, in larger packages and at lower prices than you may be used to. If "pickle" brings to mind only cucumbers, you are in for a surprise in Maharaja’s pickle aisle, which features an array of jewel-toned preserves, sweet and / or spicy, of countless fruits and vegetables. Most saucy curries and flatbreads like paratha and roti take beautifully to freezing; heat them up at home for a convenient alternative to takeout.

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