Archive for latkas

sundays at a.g. ferrari

Posted in delicious places, delicious stories, vague recipes with tags , , on March 29, 2009 by thatwasdelicious

It all started with the panettone.

A.G Ferrari’s is a classic Italian food emporium. It is owned by a man named Paul Ferrari, the grandson of the original owner, Annibale G. Ferrari. Annibale was sent to the United States at the height of WW I. Annibale’s father had lost one son to the war and was not about to see another son perish as well. Annibale sailed into New York and then made his way across the United States to California. When he arrived, he found himself surrounded by fellow Italians who longed for the food of their mothers and grandmothers. Annibale, being a very enterprising fellow, wrote a letter to his father and some months later crates of tinned tomatoes, cheeses, and wines, were coming into port and Annibale began the business that would become his legacy.

Paul Ferrari, ninety plus years later, it still looking for the food of old Italians. He takes yearly trips back to the northern mountains that Annibale hailed from and seeks out the cheese makers that tuck their cheeses in old monasteries’ crevaces to age, the estates of olives that are older than some of the ruins that peek out between the trees, and the artisans that still bake panettone at Christmas time and do it all by hand.

A.G. Ferrari still imports its food via the ocean. Crates of tins, bottles of wine, wheels of cheese, flanks of cattle, haunches of pig all come to sunny California after a long voyage across the Atlantic and then through the Panama Canal. The Port Authority has gotten more strict about inspecting our crates. I suppose it could be possible that we are smuggling cocaine into the country, but somehow, I doubt it. There was a panic in December when it seemed that the custom agents were deliberately going to be depriving our customers of their Christmas panettone but the panic passed and on Deecember 1st A.G. Ferrari’s windows were filled with the red packages of panettone.

Panettone is a traditional, Italian bread that is typically made and served during the Christmas season. The main ingredient in panettone is butter. The flour and sugar and yeast are mere afterthoughts, added in to keep the butter in a form that will keep for months and can be sliced into thick wedges. Some panettones also contain dried fruits and hints of cinnamon. Others are made with orange zest and fennel, but I have never had a version of panettone that is not delicious.

Because panettone is still fresh and arguably even more delicious up through the summer months, Paul Ferrari had ordered literally thousands of panettones for his stores. A fair number of these sold for the  holdiay season, but even when I started working there in mid-January, there was still a sizable pyramid of panettones in the window.

My first Sunday on the job I was a little nervous. I had cleared the initial hurdle of getting hired (second woman on a staff of all men) and had proven my worth by being to pick up on the subtlities of slicing prosciutto. But all that had been with the weekday crew and Sunday was a totally different combination of people and expectations. I was to open with a man named Michael.

“You’ll have fun,” Jaime told me as I left on Saturday. “Don’t pay too much attention to what he says.”


So Sunday morning I show up for work. I walk into the darkened store and there is Michael, lounging in the kitchen, open newspaper on the counter, and “Breakfast with the Beatles” playing very, very loudly on the radio.

“Hey, girl.” he said.

And I stuck out my hand for him to shake, said hi back, and then walked to the back to put on my apron and start the day. Michael is from Honduras but grew up in the States and spent his summers driving down through the state of California to Mexico and Honduras to spend time with his extensive family. He met his wife by hanging out in his future mother-in-law’s kitchen for hours at a time waiting to be fed and learning the ins and outs of Mexican cooking. One day, he and his wife are going to open a burrito shop in Mexico City because, believe it or not, there isn’t a good burrito to be found there. Michael slips in and out of nonsense (Spanish and English) and practical jokes and even though he works all week long as a gardener he never fails to come into work with more energy than most.

The first part of the morning at A.G Ferrari is spent getting the store ready. The loaves of bread are placed in their baskets, the prepared foods unwrapped and tucked into the deli case, the meat carefully tagged, salamis unwrapped, and cheese rearranged. I usually have the task of writing the specials on the chalk boards and at 9:30am we turn on the lights, turn the radio onto the CD of Italian music, tuck our white shirts into our black pants, cinch our orange aprons tight, and wait for the customers to arrive.

But on Sundays, they don’t. Well, that is to say that the customers, fully aware that Sundays are sacrosanct and should be spent lying in bed, do not arrive until well after noon. The first Sunday I worked, Michael and I sat on the counter and sipped coffee. My stomach started to rumble and the piles and piles of panettone were calling to me.

“Hey, can we make french toast?” I asked, only partly kidding.

“Out of what?”

“Those,” I said pointing to the piles of panettone wrapped up and sitting in the window.

“You know how?”

“Of course. But we need eggs,” I sighed, “I guess we can’t make any…”

But Michael had already pulled out his cell phone and was calling Johnny, our other co-worker who was due in at 10.

“Johnny, pick up some eggs, and some milk. Betty Crocker is going to make french toast.”

I didn’t even take offense to the Betty Crocker remark I was that excited about being able to have panettone french toast for breakfast . I slid off the counter and pulled out a large panettone from the pile and headed to the kitchen. “You had better call Johnny back and tell him we’ll need syrup too.”

And that was the beginning of the Sunday morning crew’s breakfasts. We have since had empanadas, tostadas, sopes (courtesy of Michael), pancakes, omlettes (courtesy of me), and one near heart attack (courtesy of Michael’s high cholesterol) but the crowning achievement came last Sunday when Johnny showed up with a three potatoes and wouldn’t let Michael or I into the kitchen for an hour.

Michael and I tried to keep ourselves from bursting into the kitchen, knowing that Johnny, if left to his own devices, was going to come up with something truly spectacular. And he did not disappoint. At 10:35 an unexpected customer arrived demanding 1 lb of salami and other sundries so Michael and I went off to help him and when we returned from ringing up the man’s purchases, Johnny stood by the kitchen doors waiting to proudly usher us into the kitchen to see what he had made.

The boy had turned the three potatoes into the most wonderful latkas that I have ever had. They were crisp and warm and he had topped them with smoked salmon, daikon sprouts, a marscapone and caper sauce, and some spicy pickled peppers to cut through all of the richness. The bright pink salmon stood out against the golden yellow of the potatoes and then the whole dish was sent soaring into the realms of spring by the fresh sparkle of green sprouts on white marscapone.

I stood there in awe. What a beautiful, beautiful breakfast.

The three of us stood in the kitchen, with one eye on the door praying that customers would not decide to roll out of bed early on this Sunday, eating slowly and carefully and savoring each impossibly delicious bite. Michael took a picture of his latka, I stood in the kitchen and made inappropriate noises, and Johnny–like all proud culinary creators– just smiled.

At one point, Michael returned to the land of the living to ask, “What would we do if Paul Ferrari walked in here right now…”

“We would feed him of course,” I laughed, “After all, isn’t this, this eating and cooking together, as Italian as you can get?”

Luckily, though, neither Paul nor any customers entered the store until we had all licked our plates clean, praised Johnny one more time, wiped the last of the marscapone cheese from the corners of our mouths, and licked the salty tang of salmon from our fingers.

I may have to work on Sundays, but as long as we keep making breakfast at A.G Ferrari I am okay with that.

Next week…catcus…..