If you grew up as part of Nina Balducci’s clan, the rhythm of the week was set by meals orchestrated with equal parts panache and tradition. Friday night supper, in keeping with her Roman Catholic faith, was fish. Saturday was steak night. Sunday was pasta and red sauce.
And always there was bread, whose wrapper was stamped with the green Balducci’s logo that she had helped design for the family grocery that was once the most important specialty food store in New York City.
“She created those experiences at the table every week so she could watch and enjoy her family,” said her grandson T.J. Murphy, who runs the Balducci wholesale spinoff, Baldor. “In business, she brought the same thing. It was always consistency, organization and strength.”
Mrs. Balducci, who infused Balducci’s with a sense of style and stabilized the family during an operatic public battle over ownership of what would become a multimillion-dollar business, died on April 12 at her home in East Williston, N.Y., on Long Island. She was 91. Her niece Emily Balducci said the cause was colon cancer.
Nina Marie D’Amelio was born on July 2, 1928, on Long Island to Michael and Marta D’Amelio. Her father was a stonemason, and mother was a couture fashion designer who instilled in Nina and her sister, Chris, a love of fashion and music. By the time she was in high school, Nina had played piano in a competition at Carnegie Hall and worked part-time in her mother’s Long Island baby clothes boutique.
Nina D’Amelio graduated from Simmons College in Boston in 1949 with a degree in business and retail and began working in high-end women’s boutiques on Long Island.
At a party in Little Neck, Queens, in 1952, she met Andrew Balducci, a World War II veteran who hadn’t finished high school but had what Mrs. Balducci would later call “the ability of a bloodhound to sense new opportunity.” Within two weeks they were engaged, and six months later they married.
Mr. Balducci’s father, Louis, an immigrant from the Southern Italian city of Bari, began his career selling fruit and vegetables from a rented pushcart in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in 1918. He opened a storefront grocery at Greenwich Avenue and Christopher Street in Manhattan in 1946, and Andrew, whom everyone called Andy, went to work for him.
Shortly after he married, Andy Balducci left the store for a job at his father-in-law’s business on Long Island, North Shore Mason Supply Corp., in Great Neck. Nina Balducci worked there, too, part-time.
“Nina didn’t want to be married to a man with dirty fingernails, and her father had a business where he was a white-collar executive,” Andy’s cousin Charlie Balducci said in an interview in 2000.
The couple went back to the market in 1968. Four years later, they moved it into a 5,000-square-foot store across the street at Avenue of the Americas and Ninth Street.
That’s when the store’s fortunes, and Nina Balducci’s role in shaping the business, soared. Though only 4 feet 11, she became an outsize presence.
“Andy is the one who gets the credit all the time, but a lot of it was born from her mind and the way she influenced him,” said Emily Balducci, who worked closely with her aunt for decades. “I never met a woman who was that sure of herself. Can you imagine a woman that strong in an Italian-American family at that time?”
Balducci’s — the first store in New York with a premium butcher, a fishmonger, a greengrocer and an impressive array of imported cheeses and prepared food all under one roof — quickly became a magnet for people who understood good food. The store influenced other stalwarts of the era, like Dean & Deluca and Zabar’s.
The shop was packed with goods — produce displays piled high, prosciutto hanging from above and Italian specialties prepared by Mr. Balducci’s mother and sister cramming a table.
Nina Balducci’s need for order and her artful sense of what a pleasurable shopping experience should be combined to elevate the store into something sophisticated at a time when New York was just discovering that Southern Italian cuisine could be more than what red sauce restaurants served with straw-covered bottles of Chianti.
Craig Claiborne and James Beard, who lived nearby, were frequent customers. So was Anna Wintour, who shopped for pecorino. Lidia Bastianich, then a new restaurateur in Queens, was grateful for the risotto, grana padano and other traditional products she couldn’t find elsewhere.
“They were a translator of culture through taste,” Mrs. Bastianich said.
Mrs. Balducci helped design the store’s shopping bags and created a mail-order business with a splashy catalog that became a national hit.
As the store’s popularity grew, so did a rift over control among her husband and his two siblings; it spilled into court and led to more than one physical confrontation. Through it all, Mrs. Balducci — who did not get along with her husband’s sister, Grace Doria — tried to rise above it and steer both the family and the business.
“She kept it all in balance,” Mrs. Bastianich said. “She stuck by her man, I would say. She was a great woman of strength, of elegance and family understanding, but you could sense the sadness that the family split.”
Andy and Nina Balducci eventually bought out his sister and her husband, Joe Doria, who left the business with his wife to open Grace’s Marketplace on the Upper East Side in 1985, prompting another round of legal battles. In 1999, the Balduccis sold their store to Sutton Place Gourmet, a Maryland-based company, for $26.5 million.
Mrs. Balducci is survived by two children, Andrea and Marta Balducci; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Her husband died at 92 in 2018. A daughter, Maria Murphy, who was called Ria, died of lung cancer in 2006, and another daughter, Dena Balducci, died in a car accident in 1991.
Well into retirement, Mrs. Balducci continued to stay busy, doing daily workouts on a treadmill and cleaning her own house. Even in the months before her death, she was mending her daughters’ cashmere sweaters.
“She didn’t trust any seamstress the girls might go to,” Emily Balducci said.