The market you can’t resist

Photographs by Bob Rozycki

Food lovers will have their palates more than just tempted at SoNo Marketplace.

They will likely find what they’re craving, whether it be sushi or salad, pizza or pasta, fish and chips or fruit tarts, coffee or cocktails.

This destination, which made its debut during the 2012 holiday-shopping season, has the proverbial something for everyone. And it’s more than food, too.

The warehouse space tucked into an industrial corner of South Norwalk – on the edge of Village Creek and about a mile from the heart of SoNo – has been the scene of a transformation into a European-style market complete with not only food vendors and purveyors, but also boutique shopping, live entertainment and special events.

In these summer months, with an outdoor farmers market and soon, a beer garden, the place is really coming into its own.

And it’s all by design, says Nancy Esteva, the venue’s director of marketing services.

“Strolling through, (it’s) really reminiscent of that European experience but it’s really been given a SoNo style,” Esteva says. “There isn’t anything like this in Fairfield County. We’re one of a kind.”

Whetting the appetite

From the courtyard that hosts the farmers market and other outdoor merchants to the first steps into the building itself, SoNo Marketplace and its growing reputation as a food destination seem well-founded.

PastaPresta stands just within the front door, fresh ravioli being made on the recent afternoon when WAG toured over a few hours. Using farm-fresh ingredients and seasonal produce, the product seems to typify the European-market experience, which isn’t surprising. After all, owners Bill and Meri Erickson of New Canaan spent four years living in Europe and created the concept of PastaPresta with Mario Cavestany of Madrid.

The booth also features private-label sauces and a variety of cooking utensils designed to please who Bill Erickson says are his biggest customers.

“Foodies,” he says. “People come in (and) they like to talk food, ingredients and they like to talk recipes.”

And they often are repeat customers, stocking up on fresh provisions.

“They come Fridays for the weekend and Sundays for the week.”

SoNo Marketplace has come to be known as a weekend destination that offers both the familiar and the unique.

That classic British favorite is found at Gotta Nibble Fish & Chips but here, things are spiced up with such options such as chipotle or wasabi mayo.

Wise Guys Pizza Pies offers up not only New Haven-style pizza but its own marinara sauce to go.

At Momo Sushi, you can opt for a salmon avocado roll, seaweed salad or sashimi, which Thanya Phanpinyo will prepare with precision.

Many come for the award-winning apple pies or even the lattice-topped cherry pies from Oronoque Farm, while another place for a sweet treat (and much more) is Green Leaf Organic Bakery and Café. Here, the menu features items ranging from Paris ham tartine to the steak-and-asparagus plate, but we never got past looking at the baked goods, including an unbelievable French donut that appears more homemade whipped cream than dough.

At Festivities The Eatery, the menu is expansive, ranging from a salad dotted with strawberries and arugula to an ever-changing selection of barbecue sandwiches to a portobello mushroom burger.

After preparing a flatbread salad that features grilled chicken and super-fresh greens, chef Walter Rivalsi says that daring, seasonal fare is the goal.

“Our motto is fun and fresh keeping it current using the farmers’ market and so forth.”

And freshness is top of the list at other venues, ranging from the fare featured at Tilden’s Seafood and Prime Meats to the seafood specialties prepared by Bloom Brothers Oysters & Clams.

A nod to the coffee craze, Flat White Coffee specializes in an Australian twist on the traditional coffee drink, or as barista Mitch Rothstein says, “less milk than a traditional latte.”

Does he get asked what a flat white is a lot? “I do, but I don’t mind,” he says with a smile.

A chance to sample, learn

Those working the booths are used to questions and welcome the chance to dispense advice and serving suggestions along with samples.

At Olivette, Niquay Moore shares that the cranberry-pear balsamic is a best-seller, with the blood-orange whole-fruit fused olive oil the most popular oil. Olivette, which bills itself as devoted to “the art of olive oil and balsamic,” offers plenty of information, from country of origin to variety of olive to production dates. Even its descriptions add to the attraction, such as that of Koroneiki –“fragrant, herbal and extremely floral. Loaded with lingering green banana notes on the finish. An outstanding example of Greek Olive Oil.”

Dorothy Mulroy, owner of Liquid Grass Juice Bar, is just settling in. A registered nurse and holistic health coach, Mulroy’s goal is to provide something that’s not only good for you but also tastes great. Juices, blended drinks and cleanse programs are featured and she’s always at the ready with a taste of whatever’s freshest, moving from a cucumber-based drink to another featuring just-sliced watermelon.

Steps away, Michael Smokler offers a taste of Maura & Nuccia’s latest creation, an apple-rhubarb crostade.

The Tarrytown-based (and Brewster-baked) company specializes in Italian artisan desserts, and Smokler says the marketplace is serving as a good way to expand the company’s clientele.

“The mixture of boutiques and artisans is very interesting,” he says.

At Plum Plums Cheese, a satellite of the Pound Ridge shop, Ronald Petruska slices an Italian cheese for customers to try, a plate surrounded by offerings that also include salamis and olives.

“We carry about 100 different cheeses and they’re imported from around the world,” he says. “My job is to educate.”

And when all that learning is done, there’s always time for a cocktail, right?

At the center of the food area is a full-service bar called Up the Creek, where patrons often gather in groups and live music is a regular feature.

Setting the table

WAG’s visit included a chat with Joe Grasso, proprietor of SoNo Marketplace.

“It’s a whole new experience for me,” he says before playfully adding that after 30 years in the construction business, “this is fun.”

He’s been more than pleased with the way the venue, which he originally saw more along the lines of a flea market-style shopping destination, has grown. The idea, he says, was developed after studying markets in a number of cities, including Seattle, and in New Zealand.

Grasso says the market itself fills 18,000 square feet of a 50,000-square-foot complex. Eventual plans include not only a beer garden, which will soon fill an additional 8,000 square feet, but a brewery and an expanded retail element down the line.

“It’s still in the beginning stages,” Grasso says of the project and its long-term plans.

But he’s more than pleased with what these first few months have brought.

“It’s nice to have a whole group, a community of vendors, who all get along,” he says. “We’ve created a family.”

And visitors, he said, recognize – and complement – that.

“It’s a great vibe when this place is really packed,” Grasso says.

The marketplace has already hosted wine tastings and a chili festival that drew nearly 2,000 people.

Surrounding shopping

While the food may be the draw for many first-time visitors, there is a vibrantly artistic retail element to things that really makes the SoNo Marketplace a well-rounded destination.

Two long aisles complete with market-style stalls featuring barnwood and pergolas overhead create a welcoming space.

Wander from booth to booth to find photographs and jewelry, clothing and home accessories and services ranging from massages to tarot-card readings.

Susan Borgen of T-Party Antiques has brought a loyal following from her onetime tea room and vintage shop in Darien to her booth filled with charmingly retro finds, while fashion-forward ladies have been scooping up the hand-crafted leather clutches, called Lovie Clutches, created by Felicia Jarzyna. Her tag.n.bundle booth also features striking home goods and accessories from around the world.

There is a real spirit here, exemplified by Liz Machette. She and husband Marc run Machette Restorations and their booth, ReFABulous Furnishings, is where neglected or discarded wares turned into home-décor treasures are shown. Think record albums melted into quirky bowls or broken CDs fashioned into glittering mosaics.

“I kind of like to see us as a mall with a heart,” says Liz Machette, who’s also the artist behind the marketplace’s signature chalkboard signs.

Liz has also helped fashion one of the newest booths, a communal effort called White Trash where her restored items – now boasting white surfaces – complement a selection of wares from the other vendors.

And those vendors are each finding their voices – and more – with the new outlet.

Alice Woods, whose A Single Strand accessories company is primarily wholesale, loves the chance to meet people and see what catches their eye.

“This format allows me to experiment and interact with customers,” she says.

Michael Heintz, who runs Torn Edges with Nan Wasson, showcases photography.

“We’ve always had our art in our studio, but we never had a place to show it,” Heintz says. “So we saw this as a great opportunity for us.”

The pair has even brought in sand to take over a second booth and create a Beach Shack, where the popular sea glass photographs will be featured for the summer.

The sewing machine and ironing board in the Kiki & Pooky booth are not props.

“People think that no one can sew anymore,” owner Kiki Verveniotis says with a laugh, but the bags, tops and dresses filling her space prove that very wrong.

Artist Annalisa Schaefer, whose booth features her illustrations and portrait work (pets are a specialty), says the marketplace atmosphere has buoyed her work. She gives art classes for children and may soon add them for adults as well.

“It’s an inspiring space, the creative energy, you feel it,” Schaefer says.

Each booth has its own feeling, a step into the owner’s own world.

There are custom tiles and hand-crafted soap, floral designs and lots of jewelry.

One designer, Brazilian-born Lu Oliveira who runs Lu Bijou, says it’s all about creating one-of-a-kind pieces where creativity takes center stage. Look closely at a necklace’s metallic accents, as she shares the materials include single-serve coffee containers.

“That’s what excites me, to do something unique out of something that you would eventually throw away,” she says.

And also echoing the community-minded spirit here is the Pass on the Love booth, a consignment-style shop set up by food vendor Festivities where proceeds benefit local nonprofit organizations.

Second helpings

Now open Fridays through Sundays (and Thursdays for private events), SoNo Marketplace is designed for repeat visits, with special festivities and continued plans for expansion.

“We’re evolving, and we’re building and we’re looking forward to a great summer,” Esteva says.

With the summertime outdoor market and pop-up tenants to be sprinkled in throughout the season and again for the holidays, the marketplace promises to be an ever-evolving destination where first-time visitors such as Bonnie Paige may very well become regulars.

The Fairfield woman was ordering from PastaPresta on the day of WAG’s visit. It turns out she is a friend of Dorothy Mulroy, the juice-bar owner, and had stopped by to wish her well.

But, it seems, she couldn’t resist the lure of the neighboring vendors. As she waited for her fresh pasta to be wrapped, she shared how the SoNo Marketplace had impressed – and clearly tempted – her.

“This is such a great place. Everything looks great,” she says. “I don’t want to come here too hungry.”

Oh, but we do – and you may as well.

For more details on SoNo Marketplace, at 314 Wilson Ave. in South Norwalk, call (203) 838-0719 or visit sonomarketplace.com. n

A farmers’ market adds seasonal flair to SoNo Marketplace.

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