Although easily missed, accessed via a brick-lined alley that hides it from the clamor of New Canaan’s busy Elm Street, BALDANZA Cafe is bustling. Even at 2:30 in the afternoon – generally a quiet time for res taurants – the cafe is nearly full, customers laughing over warm coffee, delicious-looking small bites, and lingering sips from wine glasses. When Sandy and Angela Baldanza finally get to sit down and enjoy their own lunch, they have the look of two successful restauranteurs: exhausted, but eminently content.
But running a restaurant wasn’t the first stop for either of these entrepreneurs, both of whom found circuitous routes to BALDANZA Cafe. “I was in the apparel business for 35 years,” Sandy says. “My wife, Angela, was in it for 25.” In fact, Sandy began his career as a lawyer, but in his first year of law school, he worked pro bono for a small garment contractor who owed money to the IRS. He ultimately negotiated a settlement for the contractor and then personally offered him the value of that settlement in exchange for his garment factory.
“I never studied for this field; all of a sudden, I owned a garment factory,” Sandy recalls. “I learned how to do patterns, how to cut, how to sew, and do all the things that go on in a factory.” A career followed, culminating in ownership of an apparel company that employed 10,000 people and ultimately led him to Angela, who worked in garment sales. “We worked well together,” Angela says, “and had a very respectful business arrangement. And then it became more than that. We got married and always built businesses together.”
BALDANZA Cafe, their latest shared business endeavor, brings together their love for food. “I grew up involved with my family farm in southern Jersey,” Sandy says. “We raised horses and grew a lot of crops. My mother studied naturopathy, and she had a health food store, so I was raised with fresh foods, not eating frozen stuff, no junk. We grew everything that we ate.”
“I’ve always loved going to all the farmers markets and cooking at home for family,” Angela says. “We were enjoying farmfresh products early on, before it became so popular, and friends would say to us, ‘Your dinners are so good! You should open up your own place.’ So we did.”
Originally, the Baldanzas used retail outlets to sell freshly made soups and take-home meals, but success with that encouraged them, and soon, they were renovating an off-street spot on Elm Street. They began in late 2013 with a modest four tables and simple breakfast items, but after just a few months, they had already shifted gears, filled their space with additional tables and a sit-down bar (an antique general store counter that was previously owned by Faye Dunaway, no less), and began serving lunch, too. This was followed by event dinners with guest chefs from the area using locally produced food, which grew, until they conceded to having a full-time chef for regular dinners, as well.
The delicious, homemade food and elegant-yet-casual setting has been enough to create a steady group of loyalists and regulars, but the Baldanzas – ever changing – continue to look to new opportunities. Angela has moved her cooking repertoire to television, featuring food demonstrations and guest chef food segments on Channel WFSB, once a month, covering seasonal food and special food events. And Sandy has turned his attention to a not-yet-forgotten aspect of BALDANZA Cafe’s history: their original soup line.
True to his desire for only the most outstanding flavors, Sandy admits to being unhappy with the current state of prepared soups. “The traditional way of giving soup a shelf life is through heat pasteurization. That process sterilizes it and kills the bacteria, but it changes the flavor immensely. And it handcuffs what I can put into my soups. If I’m doing a meat sauce, I can only have 2% of it be meat, and I can’t put cream in it.”
So Sandy has turned to a new technology. “It’s called ‘hyperbaric processing,’ and it is also a form of pasteurization but done with water pressure rather than heat.” Using a high-pressure water bath of 75,000 psi, the technology kills all bacteria and prevents the need for the addition of preservatives or stabilizers. “And it doesn’t change the flavor a bit,” Sandy says. His intention is to use the technology not only for an expanded soup line, but also for raw juices, chili, and prepared meals, all to be sold retail as Baldanza Soup Kitchen.
Success for the Baldanzas has been, perhaps, a reflection of their emotional investment in what they do. Looking back on their former careers in the clothing industry, Angela recalls that “the integrity was being taken out of the product. It had changed from production of high-quality goods to ‘bring the garment in at the cheapest price, at the highest margin, so we can afford to pay for the markdowns.’ Our hearts were no longer in an industry like that, but here, I really feel that we could apply our beliefs and our principles, using the best quality ingredients that we can get, working with local people, and maintaining sustainable situations with our producers.”
“There’s no love that we have more than our love for food,” Sandy says. “Everything centers around food in our family and in our work. A lot of people said, ‘You can’t do what we want to do’ – no microwaving, no freezing – all the things that a restaurant normally does to quickly get food out. But we did do it, and using local and sustainable ingredients, too.”
It’s a direction, Angela says, they won’t be turning back from. “Once you’re using the ingredients that we use, you can’t go back to middle-of-the-road food. You can taste the difference.”
> BALDANZA Café: 17 Elm Street, New Canaan; 203-966-4000