Meet & Eat: Robert LaValva, New Amsterdam Market

Meet and Eat: NY

Conversations with chefs and food personalities in New York City.

"I don't eat much meat, but when I do I buy the real thing. Yes it's more expensive, but if you eat a half pound of steak from a purveyor like Dickson's Farmstand Meats...instead of six, $2 cuts of factory farmed're actually spending less."


Photograph by Robin Riley

Robert LaValva has long been a champion of bringing the city's history back by reviving our public market tradition. According to LaValva, these markets can be the lifeblood of a community as well as a showcase of regional food.

He has worked as a planner for the City of New York and at Slow Food USA, but his current role is the director of the New Amsterdam Market, a public market in New York City which is "dedicated to promoting our region's agriculture and to building a new community of purveyors, whose common goal is to pioneer environmentally and socially responsible food production." The market has set up three times in temporary locations, but the goal is to have a permanent home and a regular schedule.

Although Robert may be forthcoming about his plans for the future of the New Amsterdam market, he is tight-lipped about his favorite Fujianese spot on the Lower East Side: "I can't tell you where it is, though, or it won't remain a gem." Grrrr...

Name: Robert LaValva
Occupation: Director, New Amsterdam Market

The New Amsterdam Market is not just any old market. Tell us a little about what you're creating. It's funny that you used the term "not just any old market" because in a way, what we are doing is bringing back something old--an indoor purveyor's market filled with vendors such as butchers, grocers, fish and cheesemongers, and other independent food businesses--but reinterpreted for our time. Markets like this were common in New York and in all American cities up until the 20th century, when they were displaced by supermarkets.

How is this different from other markets in the city, like the Greenmarket or Essex Market? In a way, New Amsterdam Market would be like a merging of these two institutions. Like Essex Market, we will be indoors, open year-round, and have vendors who are not necessarily farmers (though farmers will be there as well). Like the Greenmarket, our vendors will be selling food from regional farms and producers.

Do you have a particular space in mind? First and foremost, we want New Amsterdam Market to be in a public space. This is important, because to be relevant, a public market should feel like it belongs to the people. Public markets are filled with commerce, but the market itself is not a commercial enterprise; it is a civic institution.

Do you have any sense of when we might see your vision come to life? What steps have you taken so far? What else needs to be done? This vision already has come to life; we have held New Amsterdam Market three times now, and each time we have attracted more vendors and drawn increasing crowds of followers. The market exists as an entity; what we need to do now is to make it meet more and more frequently, until it gains enough stature to find a permanent home. That's one of the interesting things about markets--they can grow very slowly, which makes some people very impatient, but it's important that they set very firm roots, as we have done.

Why is sustainable food production important? It's hard to answer that question without knowing what "sustainability" really means. What's important is that we recognize we can't go on wasting resources, damaging the environment, and compromising public health. It's not about having the answer. It's about gathering the people who are committed to change, and seeing what comes out of that collective synergy.

Are there purveyors and producers who are already committed to becoming part of the market? We've begun talking with the producers and purveyors who have taken part in our one day markets, and a number are definitely interested. Anne Saxelby and Formaggio Essex would love to sell cheese and dairy; Jake Dickson would carry his line of meats and he's been talking with a friend who would make charcuterie. For produce, we've been speaking with McEnroe Organic Farm and also the Queens County Farm Museum, which still operates on its original 1697 tract and has now converted to full-fledged sustainable operations. Nothing is set yet, but the vendors are excited by the prospect. And given the economic downturn, this will be a timely way to support farms who are too distant to participate in our great Greenmarkets, as well as emerging New York City businesses.

What can Serious Eaters do to help the market come to fruition? Right now, we're beginning to raise money so we can start the monthly market--not an easy task in an economic downturn. We're holding a benefit on February 21; and we've also put together a pretty unusual auction--most of the items are fun, learning experiences for groups of friends. It runs until February 25, so visit our website before then to make a bid! And join our mailing list, so we can keep you informed.

Until the market comes more regularly, do you have any recommendations for sustainable food shopping in the city? There are plenty of alternatives to industrial food. We have Greenmarkets all over the city, and the CSA movement continues to grow. I think what is more important is changing one's eating habits. Personally, I try to buy from farmers or purveyors (and not corporations) when I cook at home. And I don't eat much meat, but when I do I buy the real thing.

Yes it's more expensive, but if you eat a half pound of steak from a purveyor like Dickson's Farmstand Meats (responsibly farmed) for $9 just once in a week--instead of six, $2 cuts of factory farmed meat over the course of that same week, not to mention cold cuts every day for lunch--then you're actually spending less and you're not supporting factory farms. I think this is unquestionably unsustainable on every level. None of this is easy, but that does not mean we should not try.

Best pizza in the city? For me, pizza is nearly always good no matter where you get it. But I like Luzzo's on First Avenue and 13th, especially their pizza with prosciutto and arugula. And Sullivan Street Bakery's pizza bianca [Editor's note: Also a passionate favorite of Ed's].

Favorite burger? The grass-fed burger at Diner is reliably great. The burger they serve for lunch at Prune is delicious too.

Favorite bagel? Ess-a-Bagel on First Avenue. I like pumpernickel with plain cream cheese and a little salt.

Best late-night eats? In the summer, on late night strolls, nothing beats a coconut Froz-Fruit from the deli.

Undiscovered gem? Lately I've been going to a Fujianese place in the Lower East Side. They have six items on the menu, everything is fresh and clean tasting and you can have a full meal for two for under $10. I can't tell you where it is, though, or it won't remain a gem.

Guilty pleasures? Eating cake or pastries for breakfast. Simon Sips, a new place on East 2nd Street, has some fantastic cakes: date walnut, fennel seed, and currant. I also like the olive oil cake at Abraco on East 7th Street, and Sullivan Street Bakery's bomboloni.

Food you won't eat? I eat everything, including airplane food. But I won't eat buckwheat, I discovered last year I'm severely allergic to it, after eating a bowl of soba. Which is too bad, because I do like soba.

Most memorable New York City meal? Every meal I ever ate at the Tasting Room was memorable. Colin Alevras really opened my eyes to regional ingredients and what it means to create a local cuisine.

Everyone has a go-to person they call for restaurant recommendations. Who's yours? More often than not, I turn to Cerise Mayo, whom I've known since we first met working for Slow Food [Editor's note: where LaValva formerly worked as a program manager]. She has an impeccable instinct for the genuine.

What's the best recommendation he/she has given you? When I put together the first New Amsterdam Market in 2005, she sent me to Caroline Fidanza at Marlow and Sons. Caroline made some great ice cream for that market, but more importantly, I've come to love the place and the people who work there, and they've been of huge support to this project. So that was a great find.

The New Amsterdam Market fundraiser, "Founded on Oyster Shells," will be held on Saturday, February 21 from 5 to 8 p.m.; Advance purchase tickets are required, and are $50 and up.