After more than two decades of working in visual design, Nora LaBrocca applies the same sensibility to food.
If they're easily identifiable — tomatoes, for example — and still vibrant enough to be nutrient-rich and delicious, foods shouldn't put people in a quandary.
"People get really overwhelmed with eating healthy, so they give up," says the co-owner of Downtown Market Co. "You can make yourself crazy."
Moving at her own hectic pace, LaBrocca has served fast, fresh lunches from a menu that changes weekly since summer of 2010. She and husband Brian Witter opened their 1,900-square-foot, specialty-foods store in downtown Medford two years ago after LaBrocca spent eight years working at the nearby Terra Firma Home store. In Downtown Market's Taste Kitchen, LaBrocca, 51, draws from her childhood spent on a game-bird farm in Southern California surrounded by strong Sicilian-American culinary traditions.
"Everything in our world was, like, about food," she says. "I consider the way that I was brought up ... as very healthy."
With no formal culinary training, LaBrocca passed many hours in the kitchen with some of Los Angeles' most celebrated chefs, who purchased fowl from her family. As an adult, she carried on her parents' tradition of lavish entertaining, even multi-course, weeknight dinners for extended family and friends. The value still is visible at Downtown Market, staffed by LaBrocca's younger brothers, Craig and Bill LaBrocca.
"It's like coming over to our house, hanging out," says Nora LaBrocca.
Just like dinner-party guests, customers can count on never eating exactly the same dish twice and never knowing precisely what LaBrocca has in store. The seasons inspire the menus, as well as a thriftiness that compels LaBrocca to draft specialty foods into lunchtime service once their retail appeal wanes. Because the menu is — by design — adaptable, LaBrocca can adjust just about any dish for customers' preferences or dietary requirements.
"We're very conscious of the gluten (-free) trend," says LaBrocca. "It's not hard. ... We can leave things out.
"We make our own vegetable stock here," she adds, explaining that at least one soup daily is vegetarian — often vegan — and meat is an ingredient in only about half of the weekly menu selections.
LaBrocca often showcases whole grains such as farro, barley and quinoa, as well as lentils and beans. Salads typically combine vegetables and fresh, seasonal fruits — some picked from LaBrocca's yard.
"It's all healthy, whole foods."
So LaBrocca makes no apologies for using eggs, real butter and high-quality cheeses amid plenty of healthful olive oil. It's her firm belief, she says, that everyone needs healthful fats.
"I eat everything," she says. "I eat butter. I drink whole milk still. It's about picking your battles."
Half the battle, says LaBrocca, is treading that middle ground between junk food and strict dieting, which seems to trip up so many people. The other major challenge is eating on a "human scale." In other words, don't eat a quart of ice cream when a ramekin will hold enough to satisfy the craving for something rich and sweet, says LaBrocca.
"Sometimes all you need to do is taste food."
Her appropriately named restaurant is known for furnishing some customers with a taste of the unfamiliar — eggplant, fennel, pine nuts — or making palatable some foods — beets, for example — that customers thought they didn't like, says LaBrocca.
"It's interesting to reintroduce people."
She's also introduced an array of imported and artisanal products that previously weren't available at any outlet in Medford. Italian-made pastas and sauces stand shoulder-to-shoulder with fancy preserves and pickles. Whereas her store attempted to be all things to all people — offering boxes of cereal and jars of peanut butter — upon opening, LaBrocca refocused the inventory to reflect her desire for high-quality, hard-to-find items assembled in one place.
"We're gonna sell the stuff I want in my pantry," she says. "I don't want anything that's at Fred Meyer or Safeway."
LaBrocca says she favors organic foods when they're cost-effective and available through her suppliers, as well as locally grown produce under the same circumstances. But when prospective patrons want an organic meal, LaBrocca points them across East Main Street to Organic Natural Cafe.
Yet Downtown Market has no problem filling seats and, to meet demand, LaBrocca expanded lunch service last fall by two hours to 4 p.m. May's much-anticipated opening of the Taste Kitchen's back patio increases seating by two-thirds.
And proving that she wants people to learn to cook for themselves, LaBrocca holds monthly, evening cooking classes in the Taste Kitchen. The $45 per-person price includes a full meal and glass of wine or beer. With space for just 10 participants, the classes are so popular that LaBrocca maintains a waiting list and suggests emailing email@example.com to get the latest event schedule.
"You can steal my ideas all day long," she says. "I'm using the food that's in your kitchen."