It was noon on a clear blue Sunday, Louis Prima’s “Buona Sera” was bouncing around the airwaves, and my pal Violet and I were eating sandwiches as big as our heads. Hers was hot sausage and parm on jumbo circles of pesto-slathered fried dough; mine was a Bellissimo, the same fried dough stuffed with a cutlet, fresh mozz, fire-roasted peppers and more pesto. A cheery throng crowded the counter while we ate, calling out orders for lasagna, meatball subs and cannoli, while nibbling free samples of pizzagaina, a.k.a. Italian Easter pie.
We felt like we were at the Feast of St. Andrew on Wooster Street. (“I’m going to win a goldfish any minute now,” said Violet.) But no, we were in an off-the-beaten-path section of Guilford, at a mini shopping center next to a Krauszer’s, and this was Three Girls Vegan Creamery.
I couldn’t believe my taste buds. Turns out, the “cutlet” I’d devoured was made from mushrooms, flax, chickpeas, spices and a touch of gluten; the sausage was also 100 percent plant-based. Easter pie, in its Little Italy version, is made with eggs, butter, ricotta, cream, prosciutto, sopressata, provolone and parmesan; TGV’s take was loaded with six “meats” and four “cheeses,” but none of them had ever been near an oink or a moo.
Violet, herself an experienced vegan and raw chef, was blown away: “I know good vegan food and I know good Nonni food,” she said. “This is both. There’s a magician in this kitchen … they removed the sin and guilt and put in extra flavor.”
Since it opened in the summer of 2017, TGV has garnered raves and a dedicated following across the country. It consistently sells out of product not only at its storefront but at health food stores, farmer’s markets and online. Even Oprah is a fan. At press time – if all goes according to plan and an Indiegogo campaign pays off – TGV planned to move in November into a retail spot on Guilford’s Boston Post Road that more than doubles its operating space to 1,200 square feet.
“I’m not a chef, I’m just an Italian grandma!” sings out the bright-eyed matriarch of the operation, Tracy Alexander, nee Vitale. Don’t let her fool you: she’s also a lifelong businesswoman and entrepreneur. And, yes, she’s a passionate home cook, with no formal training, who has garnered a collection of more than 800 original and inherited recipes. TGV is a family business through and through – grown daughters Brittany Guerra and Taylor Costin are the other two “girls” in the name – and love of family is where the company’s story begins.
Back in 2011, explains Alexander, her mother, Theresa Picone, was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Alexander and her sister, an advanced practice registered nurse specializing in diabetes care, got to work researching treatment options. “We decided to forgo chemo and radiation,” she recalls. Instead, they chose to participate in a few targeted clinical trials, and to make a radical lifestyle change – go vegan.
“We saw how animal products were feeding tumors,” she recalls. “I had to convince my mother – she was resistant to change – so I sold the idea to her with a PowerPoint presentation. That’s how I operate.” Mom went along with it, as did the rest of the extended family, “but we weren’t going to live on salads for the rest of our lives.” The family’s first challenge: Make vegan mozzarella that tasted like mozzarella, looked like mozzarella, and melted like mozzarella.
“It took nine months for us to get the recipe right,” Alexander admits, describing batch after batch tested and rejected by her human guinea pigs. The more successful experiments found their way to her brother-in-law’s pizza place, New Haven Apizza & Bakery in Madison.
“He started offering vegan mozz pies by special request, and the customers went cuckoo,” recalls Alexander. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is something the people really do want.’” By then, the trio had developed recipes for ricotta and parmesan, which they produced in the pizza kitchen. Orders started rolling in.
In three short months, the women had outgrown the pizza place. So, with the blessing of Executive Director Sister Eileen Dooling, they set up operations in the kitchen of Mercy By the Sea, a spiritual retreat center in Madison. That, too, proved to be only a stop along the way; soon enough, they took a leap of faith and signed a lease on a former dry cleaning business that had been vacant for 12 years. What started as a strict “creamery” became more of an Italian deli, its cases filling not only with vegan cheeses, now prepared by daughter Guerra, but with Alexander’s versions of salami, sausages, meatballs and more. Then came prepared entrées, including barbecued ribs, porchetta roast and lasagna. Creamy, dreamy vegan desserts followed – think chocolate-dipped doughnuts, layer cakes, and a divine pumpkin cheesecake topped with caramel and roasted pecans.
There is a verb I’ve only recently heard of: veganize. This describes the act of taking an existing dish and reproducing its flavor and texture – reverse engineering it, if you will – without using meat, eggs or milk products. At TGV, veganized cheeses combine traditional techniques with non-traditional ingredients; one best seller is a cashew-based cheese that is cultured and fermented for a week, then smothered in one of 15 savory toppings. (“This cheese is nuts,” exclaimed one fan. “Tastes like cheese, only better,” wrote another.) There is a steak made with black beans; pastrami made from beets and mushrooms (“With melted cheese on a sub, people go crazy,” says Alexander); vegan smoked maple bacon; and, for the holidays, a turkey roast with apple-sausage-sage stuffing – a dish sure to bring everyone to the table.
Alexander and Guerra are delighted that so many non-vegans have found their food and become loyal customers. (For the record, sister Taylor Costin is currently focusing on her career as a celebrity Pilates instructor.)
“I consider what we do to be culinary activism,” says Alexander. “I would never make anyone watch a documentary, but we’re serious about using organic, non-GMO products.” At TGV, even soy and tofu are banished due to negative health implications.
Theresa Picone left this earthly realm in January, at the age of 80. Against all odds, veganism had helped give her seven precious years of life, long enough to welcome her fifth and sixth great-grandchildren into the world. The youngest child, now four, asks before he eats anything, “Is it vegan?”
Moving forward, Three Girls Vegan plans to expand its wholesale, e-commerce and catering production in its new space. It will feature new “grab and go” options, and will be open for retail business several days a week. “But we’re never going to be open every day,” insists the woman who is, first and foremost, a New Age Nonni, a vegan grandma who fervently believes in the power of cruelty-free comfort food.