314 Wilson Ave., Norwalk, (203) 838-0719, sonomarketplace.com. Open Thursday through Sunday.
When Joe Grasso found himself with an empty warehouse and no tenant, he started dreaming about European markets and a sense of community. That dream has evolved into SoNo Marketplace, which is now starting its first summer, with an outdoor farm stand added to about 50 local gourmet food purveyors and crafts people offering their wares inside. At the end of June, a beer garden will open outdoors. Patrons can pick up food inside and eat it at the beer garden tables next to a stone fountain. The beer garden will offer 12 beers on tap and in bottles, including choices from Two Roads in Stratford, Thomas Hooker in Hartford and Relic Brewing in Plainville.
The location, on Route 136 in Norwalk, outside Village Creek, is a bit off the beaten track, convenient to people living in Rowayton and SoNo and East Norwalk, but it's drawing people from surrounding towns, too. It's a destination, a place to spend a couple hours, strolling the merchants' booths offering art, clothing, furniture, and silk flower arrangements. Most important, you can shop for food — grass-fed beef from Oronoque Farm, cheeses from Plum Plum, locally caught seafood from Tilden Seafood, chocolates and crepes from Chocopologie, and much more.
Right inside the entrance is PastaPresta, which makes pasta each day using local and fresh ingredients and eggs from cage-free Ameraucana hens (whose blue eggs were made famous by Martha Stewart) "fed a rich diet of whole cereal grains, marigolds and alfalfa grasses." The occasional bug too, no doubt.
PastaPresta is a new venture of Bill and Meri Erickson of New Canaan, in partnership with Mario Cavestany of Madrid, Spain. They use a "pastation," a compact machine that makes pasta and ravioli, rolls and cuts it into an array of widths and shapes beyond spaghetti, linguini, fettucine and pappardelle: gigli (the Italian name for lily), for example, has fluted edges and is rolled into a flower-like cone shape. The produce used in PastaPresta's ravioli comes from Connecticut and Hudson Valley, N.Y., farms. PastaPresta also sells sauces by Pemberton Foods, a small-batch producer in Maine. Flavors include artichoke and spinach pesto and sundried tomato pesto.
Festivities, the established (28 years) catering team of brother and sister William Kaliff and Rosinne Chlala, are operating Festivities The Eatery at SoNo Marketplace. They offer Mediterranean small plates, hamburgers and a foot-long hot dog on a pretzel roll (which sounds perfect for the beer garden.) Do you know Matouk's hot sauce? Kaliff and Chlala's mother's family created it. The Eatery will be selling the newest Matouk's flavor, scorpion. It has a real scorpion in it.
Festivities chef de cuisine Walter Rivalsi recently created a dish using PastaPresta's black squid-ink linguine with seared scallops. It used fellow SoNo Marketplace vendor Olivette's blood-orange-infused olive oil. Olivette specializes in fresh, single-origin olive oils. As in their main store in Darien, tasting is encouraged in Olivette's booth, and owner Alina Lawrence will teach you the difference between real, high-quality olive oils and what passes for olive oil in supermarkets (an industry that has been overridden with fraud, according to Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity). They also sell gourmet products like local Red Bee Honey, and sea salts, jams and skincare products.
Bloom Brothers of Norwalk, offers eat-in or take-out locally harvested oysters and clams on the half shell, clam chowder, stuffed clams, steamed lobster and lobster sliders (an "old school" salad or "new school" with tarragon pesto on an onion roll.)
And yes, you can get pizza at SoNo marketplace too. Wise Guys Pizza Pies bakes up pizzas, and sells their own bottled pasta sauces.
Maura & Nuccia, a Tarrytown, N.Y.,-based artisan bakery with a booth at SoNo Marketplace, makes Italian desserts. Their specialty is crostate, a pastry-lined tart. The legend is that Catherine de Medici brought her Italian chefs to France when she married the French King Henry II in 1533, and they made what became known as French pastry. In other words, the legend says that French pastry was created by the Italians. Don't tell that to a French person. Maura & Nuccia make several types of crostate, pear and chocolate, plum, apple and lemon, and also make a gluten-free version. I like the lemon. It's light and not overly sweet.
Pecan Patti specializes in – yes, pecans. Patti Shields lived outside Savannah until she was 8, and she has retained a passion for pecans. She orders them fresh from a family farm in Georgia, and creates confections and spiced pecans. She uses honey in the caramel in the turtles, which are topped with organic dark chocolate. Shields grew up in New England, and that influence comes through in the pralines – made with local maple syrup. The pecan pie, however, shows its southern roots. It's flavored with bourbon.
A stroll through SoNo Marketplace leads, inevitably, to chatting with the merchants, and when you leave, packages in hand, stomach full, you will also be filled with a sense of community.