When the weather's right and you've had your fill (for the moment) of table service, there's nothing quite like eating au naturel on a grassy patch or park bench. Here are some of our favorite places to pick up the makings of an impromptu gourmet picnic.
Agata & Valentina. One of the city's premier marketplaces brings Old World character to picnic shopping, with baskets hanging from the low ceiling and a labyrinthine layout. Fortify yourself first with a promozione, the tasty giveaways (head to the back to your right for the day's fresh roast, to the left for the handouts in the bread section). Italian cheeses like burrata mozzarella ($9.99 per pound) are a real draw. If the pizzette with kalamata olives ($3.50) isn't piping hot, they'll slide it into the oven for you. While the prepared foods, sushi and sandwiches bear Upper East Side prices, you can finish off your picnic with mini fruit tarts ($1.25) or a massive meringue for a mere 75 cents. A few tall tables and chairs are near the entrance if you just can't wait until you're outside.
Hand-written cards describe the stacks of cheeses sold at Fairway.
1505 First Ave. at East 79th Street, 212-452-0690.
Chelsea Market. This indoor concourse of food shops and restaurants makes an ideal pit stop before heading over to the promenade along the Hudson River. Picnics don't need to have themes: Pick up a lobster roll ($12.50) from the Lobster Place, a smashing chicken pot pie ($3.95) from the Cleaver Co., some crisp apples and a wedge of brie from the Manhattan Fruit Exchange, and bread to spread it on from Amy's Bakery. Sarabeth's has a small bakery here as well. You won't lack for entertainment either: The butcher at Frank's carves right in the window, and Renaissance singers, tango dancers and others often perform.
75 Ninth Ave. between 15th and 16th streets,www.chelseamarket.com.
• East Village Cheese. A local institution, this purveyor of domestic and international cheeses sells a ridiculous number of them at a ridiculous price: $2.99 per pound. Pick up an H&H bagel (50 cents), cup of joe (69 cents before 5 p.m.) and go to town on cheeses, which include soy feta and blue cheese. In the way back of the store, find a great selection of tasty add-ons, such as sun-dried tomato spread ($3.39, great on Swiss havarti or mozzarella) and dried fig spread ($3.59, like gold when served with brie). Cash only, 1/2-pound minimum cheese purchase. At these prices, you wouldn't want less than that.
40 Third Ave. between Ninth and 10th streets, 212-477-2601.
Fairway. While picnickers in a rush should head to the left of the store for the self-serve prepared foods ($4.99 a pound) -- the far right has items for the local shopper, like cereals and packaged meat -- you really have to look up, down and all around to get a full sense of the place. It's shopping writ large: The stacks are taller, the tubs of olives bigger, the signs funnier (head cheese guy Steve Jenkins lists his favorite "gooshy" cheeses on one board) and more opinionated ("Fairway is foie gras central. . . . Don't let these people put you off of one of life's greatest gustatory pleasures!"). Pick up a set of Pic Woody's "Exclusive to Fairway Disposable Cutlery of the Future," made of European beech ($2.69 for 10); a huge mixed salad ($3.49); and half a rotisserie chicken ($3.69). And then whatever you do, get outta the way of the folks yelling their brisket orders.
2127 Broadway at 74th Street, 212-595-1888, www.fairwaymarket.com.
Whole Foods. Last month this organic Union Square behemoth joined the two other Manhattan locations (Time Warner Center and Chelsea), and while we have this chain in the D.C. area, this branch has a decidedly Big Apple flavor. The store emphasizes local companies like Ronnybrook and sells meals-to-go that fit a New Yorker's sensibility ("Lox in a Box" comes with smoked Nova, toasts, cream cheese and chives, and cutlery for $6.99). There's an impressive pizza and calzone bar ($6.99-$9.99 per pound), separate hot bars for Indian and Mexican food ($5.99 per pound), cannoli tastings and 38 registers to keep folks moving. If the weather's blah, head upstairs to the "picnic seating," which also has a microwave, sinks, magazine rack, coffee bar, juice stand and -- best of all -- a view of Union Square.
4 Union Sq. S. at 14th Street, 212-673-5388, www.wholefoods.com.
Zabar's. "Next! Anybody, somebody."
"Whattaya givin' away free?"
Such is the world of Zabar's, where the employees banter with the customers, ladles hang from the ceiling and a walk through can yield a taste of Parma ham, Bilinski's chicken sausage on a toothpick and a pilfered olive or two. Much of the heavenly bread is by Eli's (owned by a member of the Zabar family; the Eli's empire has several locations). Don't let the seven strudel flavors ($5.99), nine types of knishes ($1.89) and periodic announcements ("Affordable indulgences! Sturgeon caviar, two ounces only $25, if anyone's interested!") distract you from your mission: the lox. The mezzanine offers cookware and the occasional free shot of espresso, while the cafe, just outside the store, offers a bagel, cream cheese and Nova, with coffee and OJ, for $4.95.
2245 Broadway at 80th Street, 212-787-2000, www.zabars.com.
-- Anne McDonough