Il Nuovo Mercato inspires islanders to take a ‘piece of Italy’ to their homes
Culinary establishment continues to thrive in the retail market amid the pandemic
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
Although the coronavirus pandemic and the limitations imposed by it continue challenging enterprises around the world, Il Nuovo Mercato has been standing strong in Puerto Rico since 2016 and strives to achieve more by expanding into the retail market in 2021.
Roberto Betturi, the Mercato Centrale LLC comptroller and vice chairman of its board of directors, told the STAR on Thursday that the enterprise wants to bring the “mercato” concept back from Tuscany to the island by providing a chance for customers to purchase the fresh produce that the establishment uses to cook right in their homes.
“In this 2021, I want to take the risk to see if we can bring a piece of Italy to Puerto Rico,” he said, adding that the goal is to establish the island enterprise to the same degree as Il Mercato Centrale in Florence.
Betturi said the venture is an expansion of their DIY pizza and pasta kits, which he said have been well received during the pandemic.
“If customers want a fresh slice of ribeye [steak] from our market, we can cut it and pack it for you so you can cook it for yourself,” Betturi told the STAR. “You want a beer? You can purchase it by the pound; if you want sauce, fresh pasta, other products you can’t get elsewhere such as burrata (Italian cow milk cheese with mozzarella and cream), well-cut prosciutto, an assortment of cheeses, why not bring that experience to your house and make yourself a good dinner with fresh products, instead of just hiring a catering service?”
“There’s a niche here, there’s a group of people who like this and have asked for such a service, to which we have made an exception and sold what we could,” the businessman added.
As for the bodegas Il Nuovo Mercato has on the third floor of the Mall of San Juan, Betturi told the STAR that the enterprise will continue bringing an “authentic Italian experience with a Puerto Rican spice” at an accessible price.
“In France, the cuisine is distinguished due to its technique, and they’re good at it. Italian cuisine, however, emphasizes the quality and freshness of the product, and is created using techniques that aren’t too challenging,” he said. “People might be surprised by how familiar it feels, since it is not a food service establishment, but by just ordering your meals and picking them up on your own, you can achieve a fine-dining experience for half the price.”
“In the last five years, we have been able to purchase most of the Puerto Rican produce we use today,” he added, noting that Il Nuovo Mercato, along with other restaurants such as Starbenne Caffé, Burger and Beer Joint, and the Prosecco Bar, support local businesses that produce Italian-roasted coffee from Lares and Adjuntas, arugula, bread, pumpkin, smoked cheese, and other products.
“Everything you see here is made from scratch,” Betturi said.
“The only thing that is still imported is our gelatos, because we want that experience to be as authentic as possible,” he added. “However, we mix local fruits from the island and we also make partnerships with other brands to concoct unique flavors such as ‘coquito’ and panettone.”
‘We faced the pandemic as a family’
Regarding the pandemic, Betturi said Il Nuovo Mercato has been able to adapt to the executive orders the government has established to limit the spread of the coronavirus. He said that after the lockdown went into effect last March, the company was able to pay its staff members until the economic sector reopened during the summer.
“From 95 employees, 93 were able to report back to work when we called them,” he said.
“This shaped the beginning of finding the key to success as our focus was to never forget that we are here to sell an experience. We must make sure that our customers have a brief moment to escape from the reality we are living while remaining safe.”
As for safety measures, the entrepreneur told the STAR that Il Nuovo Mercato was fortunate to have enough outdoor dining space to avoid the risk of crowding and comply with government anti-coronavirus measures.
“We’re fortunate enough to have a gigantic space, such as a beautiful terrace,” he said. “If you can imagine, even when the government imposed the 30% occupancy restriction, we didn’t even reach 25% of the authorized occupancy because it wasn’t necessary [to fill the space].”
“We take care of our clients; that’s something we are more than aware of,” he added. “We have siblings, offspring, grandparents, and loved ones who we must protect, and we want to take care of everyone. We have faced this pandemic like a family.”
Likewise, he said “this philosophy of protecting our workers has been with us since Hurricane Maria,” as it was one of the greatest challenges that the island food market faced.
“We began establishing ourselves during a critical time for all Puerto Ricans,” Betturi said. “I understood after the hurricane that life was not only about receiving, but it’s also about giving back.”
As for now, he said their most regular clients amid the pandemic are elderly customers and families.
“The feedback we have received is that [clients] feel safe here,” Betturi said. “Some end up returning even four times a week.”