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Christmas at Central Market

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We had the pleasure of sampling the holiday goods on offer at Central Market this week, both those scattered in festive packaging throughout the store and those behind counters.

General Manager Phil Myers seemed most proud of the wares he ordered for the store during a culinary excursion to Italy last summer. Torrone, a nougat treat, might have been every third word out of his mouth. It's hard to blame him. Not only are Sorelle Nurzia's high-end candy bars making their first appearance in Texas, he says, but they're awfully good.

We tried two white-nougat varieties: one green-wrapped, with pistachios, the other red-wrapped, a chocolate-covered hazelnut-type that was particularly impressive. This isn't 3 Musketeers, canker-sore-inducing nougat. This filling is light on its feet. The hazelnuts have the right size and spacing, and the chocolate forms a nice, firm barrier that melts slowly with each bite.

The L'Aquila-based company has been family-run since the 1830s, and last April's powerful earthquake in the town didn't change that. If you need to justify a $10 torrone as charity for a rebuilding community, feel free.

In-house at Central Market, food services director Anette Grecchi Gray and staff make, among other grub, fruitcakes, German stollen bread, and pumpkin loaves (these strike the perfect balance between crispy top crust and moist interior).

Among the meal platters, the jalapeño-pecan dressing for the ham was a nice touch. We started scribbling negative notes after the spicy first bite, but had scratched them out by the last. Most intriguing, however, was the vegan option, a hazelnut cranberry roast en croute (wrapped in puff pastry and baked). Wheat, quinoa and other grains are cooked into a meal, then hazelnuts and cranberries added.

The rubbery vegan texture unfortunately wasn't absent, but the roast was tasty enough that we'd like to try it again straight from the oven, not after it had been sitting in a poorly heated buffet tray for an hour. Feeding four with the full vegan platter will run you $70. The turkey ($130) and ham ($90) platters feed six to eight.

Now, Myers and his crew are wily. We don't know about you, but if we stumble into the wallet-pummeling maze that is Central Market on an empty stomach, we take home cheeses from countries we forgot existed.

When searching out the holiday items, tread carefully, eat the free bagel samples, and, in general, look to the standing racks in the center of the aisles. You'll have to cover most of the maze to hit them all.

If the neighbor's dogs rush the kitchen and eat your bird, or you'd just rather keep your fist out of a turkey carcass this year, Central Market might be a good backup.

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