James Muuse exchanged pleasantries with Ceriello Fine Foods owner Andy Ceriello before stepping up to the counter and ordering himself a fresh patty from the gourmet market’s new burger joint.
“His burgers are probably the best I ever tasted,” said Muuse, a weekly customer of Ceriello for 25 years. “That’s coming from somebody who lives right in Midtown where there’s the best of the best — it’s a piece of artwork.”
Muuse’s burger ended up being on the house.
Ceriello literally reclaimed its roots when it opened the burger establishment next door to its high-end market, reoccupying the small space of its original salami shop that opened in 1979.
“I didn’t want to rent it to anybody. The next best thing is to utilize it ourselves and serve the community a little better — it doesn’t have to be a huge profit center,” Ceriello said. “It’s been empty for about 14 years, so we decided it’s time to do something with it. I think we have excellent meat, so why not sell it as a burger?”
Born in a town just outside Naples, Ceriello opened his first two stores in Staten Island in the early 1970s, but he sold them to focus on Long Island. In 1979, he opened his 900-square-foot salami company on Willis Avenue, before expanding about 14 years ago into a general high-end grocery store in the space next door.
“The evolution of the business came by itself — it was organic,” Ceriello said. “When [my wife and I] started, I think it was 900-square-feet. Now I think we have 4,000-square-feet.
In 1987, 1988 my wife came up with a sauce line. Now we sell sauce to a lot of high-end markets. Not too shabby for a little guy on Willis Avenue.”
Ceriello has since opened stores in Manhattan, Baltimore, Wantaugh and New Jersey, with plans to expand to Washington D.C. in the next year.
But, Ceriello said, he has a special connection to the Williston Park shop.
“This is my baby; this is where I started. I know people here. They were children, now they have grandchildren,” he said. “I’m part of the community. The other stores, they are just a business. This is something different here.”
He has a special bond with his customers, too, he said.
“Anything to do with food is romantic because you interact with people,” he said. “I sell you stuff, and you go home and give it to your family — it’s a connection…I sell to the same people every week.”
A blend of prime beef, brisket, sirloin and short ribs, a Ceriello patty is cooked in a ball to preserve the juices and flavors, Ceriello said.
“Every cut has a certain flavor profile, and if you put them all together, you come up with this” he said. “I won’t say my profile is better than anyone else. I’m just saying I like my profile.”
He didn’t say his profile is better, but he said his meat is.
“We only buy prime beef…you really need to know what you’re doing with prime beef. You really need to know your sources. In a hundred pieces of beef that get harvested, only four of them are prime,” he said. “We sell prime beef all our lives, we’re not going to change that. That’s how you survive in a small community where everybody is cheaper than you, by selling something that is special.”
Ceriello said he holds the same standard for the freshness of the burgers that he holds for the meat sold next door, using meat delivered daily by his distributor, he said.
“It’s fresh meat we ground in the morning, and we sell it during the day,” he said. “If we sell 10 burgers, we make 10 burgers. We don’t sell smelly meat.”
Muuse, whose mother is a 55-year resident of the village, said Ceriello’s quality is second to none.
“I’ve never seen any establishment around here that sells the quality Andy has,” he said. “The quality is just so prime.”
And Andy Ceriello brings his own charm, too, Muuse added.
“He’s been an icon in the village,” he said. “He’s such a likable, affable man. This smile, the way he runs his business, it’s a pleasure to come in.”