There is this market called A.G. Ferrari that I discovered when I lived in Rockridge, at 60th and Colby, before I met that lumberjack love of my life and moved to San Francisco, in Pacific Heights, flush against Lafayette Park; before we made the recent move to larger accommodations in none other than Petaluma, our quiet hometown nestled amid rolling, golden hills and jagged streets, cattle dispersed among scarified trees. I first noticed the bread, sweet and sour baguettes and thick, round boules, balanced perfectly upright and branching out from woven baskets in some staged cornucopia of wheat. The bread, in all its peacock flourish, was enough to tempt me inside - that, and the sedating serenity to the building itself, clad in muted sienna red and adobe brown, a bright red cloth canopy lending a dim intimacy to the Tuscan yellow interior within. Inside my eyes were met with mountains of cheese, with names of the kind I love to roll off my tongue but can never, for the life of me, recall with perfect resolution, names like Asiago d’Allevo Oro del Tempo, and La Tur delle Langhe. The artisan, rustic pastas and sauces, fresh made salami, wines and more all hail from Italy, where the owners frequently travel to scour the land for more small purveyors and local products. And, I’m not the only one to love the market – A.G. Ferrari has been around since 1919, and over the decades have successfully opened a myriad of storefronts in San Francisco, the East Bay, and throughout Marin.
It was not the first trip, nor the second, but possibly the fourth trip – this time, to the smaller store on College Avenue in Berkeley – that I discovered the deli in A.G. Ferrari. Normally, I avoid delis – I associate them too much with the murky, Jewish delis of New York, with their hard-to-pronounce, seemingly unpalatable foods, and with the modern deli, those purportedly convenient, food afterthoughts affixed to large supermarkets, or, on a smaller, grosser scale, those delis slapped together in the dusty, slightly musty back of many a corner store where we usually go to buy cheap liquor, Home Run Pies or condoms, definitely not a salami sandwich. The predominance of, and reliance on, such supermarkets as Safeway, Lucky’s, and Raley’s have transformed the once exquisite delicatessen into a slapdash version of itself, its name shortened even, to the slapdash deli, a place where bland bread meets bland cold cuts, not so much married as forced together in some dry sandwich of mustard and mayo, a few sour pickles, shredded iceberg, and an overall countenance of beige. A coleslaw is usually present, more mayonnaise than slaw, and deviled eggs make their untimely appearance every few weeks, sweat beading off their puffy, protein casing and clumping the decorative paprikia in slowly sliding spindles. When I see those deviled eggs I always try to picture the brave soul willing to tackle E coli.
In smaller enclaves, however, in hole-in-the-wall recesses of city neighborhoods, or along the shoreline of Tomales, on Sir Francis Drake Rd., there exist the true, the original delicatessens. In these proper delis you’ll find excellent sandwiches – nothing fancy, but filled with interesting cheeses and the option for liverwurst – and sides or salads that were obviously concocted by someone’s wife, after many years tinkering with cider vinegar and celery root in her tiny, cottage kitchen. The menu never changes, but the options are always downright delicious and homey: regular ham is replaced by smoked boar’s head with three peppers; ground sausage is replaced by chicken apple sausage with smoked paprika; local bread usurps generic, market bread; and salami, in all its fatty glory, takes the helm from the lowly Slim Jim. Who knew a deli could have great beer, great food, and great character?
I knew A.G. Ferrari was on to something when its deli was rife with sandwich options like Aged Coppa, Bresaola, Prosciutto di San Daniele, Willie Bird Smoked Turkey, Salame Milano, Italian Mortadella, Gorgonzola Pine Nut Spread, Garlic Mayonnaise and more. Ready made paninis include the Toscana, made with Salame Toscano, olive tapenade, provolone, leaf lettuce and balsamic vinaigrette on a house-baked ciabatta, and desserts run the gamut from the traditional Tiramisu to the Torta Di Ricotta, a decadent cheesecake baked in a sweet pastry crust. Another amazing dessert is the Salame del Papa, a traditional Italian chocolate treat made in honor of the Pope, with cocoa, eggs, sugar, butter and biscotti. Risottos, roasted chicken drumettes, pizzas, and hand shaped beef and pork meatballs in a spicy, housemade sauce also exemplify the stellar choices at the A.G. Ferrari deli.
On that day I couldn’t pry my eyes away from the Torta Pasqualina, a spinach torte baked with Parmigiano and ricotta in a thin, savory dough. The dough was thin, barely 1/8″, but the torte, itself, was thick, beastly almost, with a good 3 inches height of filling. Spinach was used, wilted in olive oil, with a heaping mass of ricotta and parmesan, and most likely an egg or two to bind. The crust served as a nice backdrop to the savory filling, accenting here and there with a soft breadiness, a bit of salt. Every mouthful had something new to offer: a bit more bitter spinach in this bite, more milky ricotta in this one, something savory and full of umami, a meatiness I just couldn’t detect beyond that overwhelming, full-boded parmigiano. I suppose that’s why I felt I need to recreate this torte on my own.
I never like to create exact replicas of foods I’ve eaten (I’ve eaten it once, and I know where to buy it, so why should I bother with frustrating myself in some thinly veiled attempt at recreating something already perfectly done?), opting instead to add my own quirks and insights, choice in ingredients and such. I decided to make a thicker crust, and to overlap the edges on top to keep the filling more moist; I thought a dash of white wine to the crust would give it extra zing, especially now with a filling of ricotta, leek, parmesan and black kale I had selected. Bitter greens, like kale, can have an unpalatable bite to some people, but with the right amount of acidity – wine in the crust, lemon zest in the filling – this can be mellowed out (not to mention, of course, the abundance of ever so mellowing cheese). Three eggs, honestly, is the best to create a more quich-like richness and firmness, but you can get away with using only two eggs, but make sure you really dry out the ricotta, otherwise a watery demise may befall upon your much anticipated torte.
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Ricotta Leek Torte
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup unsalted butter, cold, chopped in small cubes
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup chilled white wine
In a small bowl, mix together the flour and salt. Using your hands (if cold enough), a pastry cutter, large-tined fork, or a food processor on pulse setting, cut the chilled butter into the flour until it resembles coarse sand with a few pea-sized pieces of butter still visible. Sprinkle the wine evenly over the mixture and toss gently a few times, just until it forms a ball that holds together.
Separate the dough into two balls, flatten slightly into thick disk shapes, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for several hours before working with it.
For fast preparation: Put the dough in the freezer for 40-50 minutes before working with it.
2 leeks, washed, thinly sliced horizontally
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 bunch black kale, washed, thick chiffonade*
2 cups ricotta (whole milk, for obvious reasons, is best)
1 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano
1 tsp salt
zest of one lemon
3 eggs, beaten
plenty of fresh ground pepper
Extra egg, beaten, for egg wash
Preheat oven to 425.
In a large skillet (I favor the cast iron pan) saute the leeks with the olive on high heat. Once they start to sweat a bit, add the garlic, so it doesn’t burn. Lower the heat and add the kale, letting it wilt completely, and adding a bit more olive oil and the lemon zest to taste. Remove from the heat, and mix the ricotta, the parmigiano, the eggs, salt and pepper together first before pouring over the kale and mixing thoroughly. Pour into the pie crust and fold the dough edges over the filling, overlapping in a circle. Brush with an egg wash. Bake for roughly 15 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 325 and bake for an additional 35 – 50 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown, almost darkly so.
*chiffonade = a cutting techniquere you lay green atop one another, roll them like a cigar, then cut them horizontally in slices. Usually thinly cut, or shredded.