By Cindy Atoji Keene
Green grocer Steve Napoli believes he has created a urban produce mecca that is also a vital community gathering spot. His new venture in the South End, Snap Top, is a throwback to the neighborhood corner grocery store, where the best locally grown fruits and vegetables are displayed with the rustic aesthetics of vintage produce crates and hand-painted murals. Napoli hand-selects all the seasonal produce he sells, whether blue hubbard squash or white peaches, and also offers healthy grab-and-go meals and a gourmet selection of cheese, baked goods, grains and pasta, oils and vinegars, and spices. “Peaches just kicked off – that’s the big one for August. This month also brings other stone-fruit full force – look for nectarines and plums. Blueberries are being harvested right now in the state. Tomatoes and corn round it off,” said Napoli, 28, who who grew up working on his family’s generations-old farm in Acton.
Q: Along with sourcing from local farms, you go on predawn runs to the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, one of the largest wholesale markets in the country. How do you navigate around this huge distribution center?
A: There is a pulse there that is incomparable to most things. The best adjective to describe it is ‘fast’ – it’s definitely at the center of how this city eats. It’s a maze of trucks, loading docks, fork lifts, and products, all moving around from point A to point B. The action starts at 2-3 a.m. You need to know what to buy and where to look. Ten guys might be selling strawberries but only one or two are peddling the best strawberries. Your eyes are your best asset.
Q: You are a fourth-generation green grocer; your dad taught you the ins and outs of picking freshest produce while you grew up at Idylwilde Farm in Acton. What advice did he give you?
A: I started at the bottom, doing whatever needed to be done at the farm. My dad introduced me to the region’s local farmers and food proprietors and showed me what to look for. There are a lot of visual and smelling cues when selecting produce. Blueberries, for example, should be hard with a nice, powdery frost on them – in the industry we call it a ‘bloom.’ Lastly you want flavor, so I’ll eat it right there and pop one in my mouth. If it’s soft and mushy with no sugar, it’s very underwhelming for consumers. Sugar is a big component of how viable the flavor is.
Q: When it comes to produce, a lot of customers go mostly on appearance but then take it home and it’s completely tasteless. How do you advise your customers to choose? A: I always tell my customers that some of the ugliest fruits are the sweetest. People are wary of this, because the nature of mass supermarkets has made it so there’s no other way to judge the taste but by appearance – they can’t take a bite of them. Pears are great example of appearance not translating to taste. You actually don’t want to buy a perfect looking pear. If you do, it needs to sit for a few days to become sweet. Citrus is similar. Some oranges with “ugly” knobs, like Florida Honeybells in the winter, are extremely juicy and tasty.
Q: What are the health and safety regulations that you need to follow when handling raw agricultural commodities?
A: We wash everything that comes in the door and have the infrastructure in place from a Board of Health perspective, which includes proper sanitation facilities. I have to be on top of everything, from the ph of water that we’re using to wash dishes, to the type of broom we’re pushing. We have a specially designed vegetable wash, which is a sink we soak produce in, and a solution that gets rid of anything on produce skin from harvesting or transportation.
Q: Is organic overrated?
A: Organic doesn’t always have the better flavor. I’d be more apt to support a local guy. I’m pretty weary of Big Agriculture. The validity of a California organic program is a good example – is it a label and a large marketing effort or a legitimately organic farm? Who grew it and how they grew it is more important.
Q: What’s currently in your refrigerator?
A: There are berries, some leftover salmon, and green tea. I make my own cold-brewed coffee and do a lot of juicing with vegetable waste, whether it’s sweet potatoes, cucumbers or beet greens. I grill up a ton of vegetables like eggplant and summer squash. I like Caprese salad in the summer. And of course a lot of Pellegrino.