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With the cost of airfare soaring and COVID restrictions still in place for some international travel, it’s comforting to know that we can enjoy an authentic taste of Italy within a few miles of home.

Because of supply chain issues, and the ever-increasing cost of ingredients and difficulty attracting competent staff, it has become extremely challenging for high-quality food stores to survive or maintain their customary level of excellence.

Fortunately, for those of us residing in Southern Vermont, we have Al Ducci’s in Manchester Center. We like to think of Al Ducci’s as a gourmet eatery, offering classic Italian cooking, meals and provisions, prepared by a supremely professional kitchen, thoughtfully executed, and generously proportioned.

What makes Al Ducci so special is the passion and pride that is the very essence of talented owners Robin Ryan and Patti Vunk. Robin, a California native, worked in advertising on Madison Avenue before opening a successful women’s clothing store in Manhattan. Robin moved to Vermont in 2008 where she became a real estate broker. Having a gift for and enjoyment of the kitchen, Robin, along with Patti, bought the store in 2017 and never looked back. Patti, a Long Island native, previously owned the famous Dolphin Book store in Port Washington, which was in her family for 42 years. Dedicated and hard-working, Robin and Patti took this project on with gusto and a commitment to succeed in bringing extraordinary food to the community.

Al Ducci’s uses whole fresh tomatoes from Italy. Neither artificially sweetened nor delivered crushed in a can, these tomatoes have a genuine earthy taste that is unrivaled by standard supermarket fare. Similarly, farm fresh aromatic basil used by Al Ducci’s is hand-cut fresh from the stem, not packaged. This attention to detail demonstrates how Robin and Patti skillfully and caringly go about cooking for us. For them, it’s a labor of love. They take the necessary and appropriate time, coupled with that extra effort, to preserve the essence of the food they prepare. The garlic they use is garden fresh and the ground beef they use is never frozen. Their delicious sausages are humanely raised locally.

As Robin simply but eloquently remarked during our conversation, “Food is love.” She views Al Ducci’s as a source of nurture and healing. It’s reassuring to talk with food store owners like Robin and Patti who are invested in what they do, not just as a business, but as a way of being part of and contributing to the community, a community that is most appreciative of their personal engagement. There’s an enthusiasm and diligence that makes Al Ducci’s so flawless. Even on Mondays when the store is closed, Robin can often be found in the kitchen preparing soup for the next day.

Although this year’s Easter and Passover season has passed, it’s worth pointing out for next year that these holiday meals are painstakingly and thoughtfully prepared, perfectly composed and the annual recipient of compliments from a happy clientele. The Easter menu offerings for 2022 starred beef brisket with carrots and onions, chicken piccata, ham with house maple glaze, roasted salmon (whole or by piece), eggplant parmesan and lasagna, along with a bevy of vegetables. Outstanding desserts were many, including cannoli, tiramisu, ricotta cheesecake, pistachio cake, chocolate layer cake and Torta Della Nonna, which is a pastry cream with a hint of lemon on a base of pastry covered with pine nuts, almonds and powdered sugar.

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The Passover menu was elegantly simple, including a gently flavored matzo ball soup, melt-in-your-mouth brisket, wonderful sides and a meal-ending flourless chocolate cake, coconut macaroons and almond cookies.

For those who shop at Al Ducci’s on a regular basis, as we do, the meats, aged cheeses, salads and breads are all consistently and dependably excellent. Patti points out that of their large cheese case selections, half are Vermont cheeses, including those from Shelburne Farms, Jasper Hill in Greensboro and Maplebrook Farm in North Bennington.

The fresh daily breads include focaccia, semolina, ciabatta and baguettes, each a blissful compliment for their mouthwatering hot or cold sandwiches and paninis. Al Ducci’s will customize your sammie or panini to include roasted eggplant, fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers, tomatoes, basil, oil and vinegar with Parma prosciutto, aged one year or two, a rare find and a pure joy to savor. We especially like the brie with fig jam added to aged prosciutto or roast turkey. Broccoli rabe, arugula, grilled artichoke hearts, hot or sweet peppers and fine imported cheese can be added to make it the way you like. You can order heavenly light but rich meatball, eggplant or chicken parmesan sandwiches. Their house-made sausage, hot or sweet, are a fabulous take-home item, easy to warm up and enjoy at your convenience. Wonderful, lovingly made soups often include chili, Italian vegetable, chicken noodle and butternut squash. Salads include bean, mozzarella, beet, stuffed mushrooms, meatballs, chicken salad and many others.

Hats off to Jami Brooks, consummate head chef for the past 6 years, who consistently hits home runs. We love Jamie’s (secret recipe) coleslaw. All we know is that it’s the only one we’ve ever had that’s made with small pieces of Gala apples along with fresh dill. Always a taste treat and great side with the crab cakes. But it’s the quality and quantity of the prepared foods, perfect to take home, that make Al Ducci’s so special and such a rewarding experience. When shopping at Al Ducci’s, it’s best to go slowly, taking it all in, so as not to miss the many gems just sitting there for you. Whether it’s cornmeal crusted soft shell crabs with homemade tartar sauce or the fabulous eggplant parmesan, chicken piccata or francaise, every bit is a reminder of the devotion that goes into the food at Al Ducci’s.

Other take-home items include tomato mozzarella tart, broccoli mushroom quiche, roast salmon, pizzas ready to be popped into the oven, spaghetti and meatballs and “Saturday pasta” available only on, you guessed it, Saturday. Just about the best pasta anywhere.

Al Ducci’s offers a wonderful wine and chocolate selection along with delectable desserts, including strawberry rhubarb pie, lemon pound cake, Grandma Miller’s pumpkin nut coffee cake, as well macaroons and almond cookies. And, not to be forgotten, Patti makes the most wonderful custom gift baskets for every occasion.

Al Ducci’s is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Daily specials and favorites are posted each day on Facebook. Curbside pickup and catering is available. At 133 Elm St. in the historic district of Manchester Center, parking is convenient either in front of the store or in the parking lot directly across the street. You can place orders at 802-362-4449.

David Meiselman and Myra Packman are food and restaurant columnists for Vermont News & Media. They can be reached at davidandmyravt@gmail.com.


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