Thursday, May 23, 2024

A rustic sign outside the new Formaggio at 358 Huron Ave., Huron Village in West Cambridge. (Photo: Gus Rancatore)

When I was a younger adult in Boston, after being driven from the garden of higher education, there were two places that entranced me with the possibilities of success: the old Design Research on Brattle Street, and Formaggio. In both cases I loved the customers and how happy they seemed to be with their ever-improving lives – in fact, I loved the customers and their shared progress toward happiness more than I loved the merchandise. None of the shirts designed by Marimekko for Finnish farmers fit me very well. And I don’t drink much wine, so a good deal of what Formaggio sold was irrelevant to me. But both stores seemed full of happy couples busy planning to be happier still.

Design Research became Crate & Barrel and eventually disappeared. I still like the furniture and I do miss those well-dressed, happy-to-be adults on their way to the future.

Formaggio was more complicated because – to use a phrase I hate – the lifestyle fantasy it proffered was more accessible and involved food, which I love too much. You could visit its small, crowded store on Huron Avenue and eat immoderate amounts of cheese samples; most of the time, there were two tables of cheeses. And you could wander around looking at pastas from a better Italy, and vegetables grown by happy hippies who’d been liberal arts majors. And while you could easily and stupidly spend all your paycheck in Formaggio, you could also get out with a few excellent items and ideas about what you might cook or heat.

My sisters lived on Huron Avenue before it became Huron Village. They lived on the first floor of a house that belonged to a police captain. Seemingly every member of his family was on the force in some capacity. When they all came to visit or left, a friend said it seemed like a raid.

The Fresh Pond Market was across the street, run by Marc Najarian and his brother Crosby, who ran the meat counter. On another corner was a neighborhood store that sold Boston Heralds, cigarettes and lottery tickets. Most of the neighbors didn’t need much more. On Sundays they might buy a box of Pepperidge Farm powdered doughnuts. The corner store was known as The Little Rip Off Store, although its prices weren’t so awful. There was also Emma’s Pizza, run by a formidable woman, and between Emma’s and Fresh Pond Market was Jeff’s Discount Kitchen, a hippie restaurant run by a man who spent a lot of time practicing piano in the dining room.

The new Formaggio’s breakfast bar. (Photo: Formaggio via Facebook)

Formaggio was several blocks from this neighborhood center of commerce. Recently Formaggio closed at 244 Huron Ave. and took over the location of Fresh Pond Market at 358 Huron Ave., and I visited. Marc and his brother, like Elvis, had left the building, though a longtime worker from the old market was running the door to the new cheese shop. On several days there were lines of people in front of the new store, looking like a different version of a Depression-era breadline – one consisting of fairly successful people waiting for very good food.

The new Formaggio is much bigger and brighter. It reminds me of Dean & DeLuca in New York, especially with the clever coffee station by the door that functions as a tollbooth for people entering and leaving. The new store also has more and bigger piles and displays of wonderful things to eat. Probably something is lost without the compression of the older, too-small space. I went to Formaggio often enough to feel like I knew most of the workers, at least by sight; there are so many workers now I will have to sample a lot of cheese before we all become familiar with each other.

Formaggio has radicchios for either $6.95 or $31.95 a pound. (Photo: Gus Rancatore)

I should also say the store has a broad and wonderful selection of ice creams. There is a small area with paper towels and like. This store would not be confused with a CVS. But what I most noticed was the radicchio, a vegetable from childhood that I always associate with a joke: “Don’t be radicchios.” Formaggio has excellent radicchio for $6.95 a pound – and a Castelfranco radicchio for $31.95 a pound. They’re both beautiful, and there is something extraordinary-looking about the more expensive vegetable, like a speckled egg. I will report if I discern the difference in a sampled leaf; there are even more expensive things in the store, but I’d never seen a vegetable at such a price.

I actually returned to Formaggio to ask about the Castelfranco radicchio. It was described as local and organic, but at that price you might expect something that had been picked in a special valley in Italy and flown to Boston for all the nice people who still go to Formaggio.

Gus Rancatore has lived and eaten in Cambridge since 1973. He and his sister own Toscanini’s ice cream on First Street and soon to return to Lafayette Square.