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The Olive Garden

A.G. Ferrari Foods opens a San Francisco branch which is anything but assembly line

The burden of the franchise weighs heavily on the those otherwise lucky enough to live out this current fin de siécle. Jaded and resentful of their encroachment on our streets, neighborhoods and Safeways, each additional commercial development leads to another round of boos and sighs, another chorus of 'there goes the neighborhood.' Particularly in San Francisco, which still protects its integrity as would a village though its long been a major city, getting caught with a Starbucks Frappucino is grounds for social dismissal. But chains and franchises are sneaky, and slowly they've learned to drop the neon signage and magenta uniforms which, in half-decades past clearly warned (or beckoned) the consumer. So how was I to know that my favorite new store was part of a chain?

It started out innocently enough. A friend told me about a new little gourmet shop in his neighborhood (alright, he lives in the Castro which, having become something of a gay theme park, is admittedly as much little neighborhood as San Francisco is a village) where one could sneak free olives (brine cured, olive cured, brownish red aromatics, Kalamata black and French green, to name a few) for an easy on-your-way-home pre-hummus appetizer. So like a little kid pilfering Brach's taffy while mom shops for iceberg lettuce, I got off at Castro station, one stop further than normal, and stopped into A.G. Ferrari Foods to get my olives. Plump and moist, salty and free, I never knew adulthood would be this good. To the right of the olives, set out as if they already knew the directive my stomach would issue after the olive filching, were several different varieties of cheese and bread. I had some of both before venturing further into the store, only to find olive oil tastings and honey and crackers.

By this time, the hummus and pita dinner I had planned for myself began to seem a little bit bland and a lot more pedestrian in comparison to the gastronomic thrill of my 'appetizer'. I was drawn to the sandwich board and 'deli' which featured roast pork tenderloin, rosemary foccacia, free range turkey, Toscano salami and something called 'smoked willie bird' about which I was hesitant to inquire. Costing between $2.75 - $5.95, they're as cheap as they are large. I settled on the Torinese (lean roast beef on rosemary foccacia with a creamy gorgonzola and pine nut spread). With a diet?-what diet? turn of the head, I began s.pling the salads. The Tonno Veneziano ($8.95/lb), an albacore Tuna Salad uses a mild Dijon to cut the oil-rich mayonnaise . The Insalata di Tonno, Fagioli e Cipolla ($7.95/lb) was even better, jettisoning the mayonnaise c.pletely for a tuna, white bean and red onion salad with oil and vinegar. I settled on the Insalata di Asparagi e Patate Mimosa ($4.95) with delicately cooked asparagus, satisfying rustic potatoes, and eggs dressed in a creamy white wine sauce.

I've been back several times since, always lured by the olives. S.ples are free and plentiful, but this isn't a charity. But while the olives may be the original pull, I always leave with bags full of cheese, aranciata, tapenades and pestos -- A. G. Ferrari more than makes their money back on me. But life is too short for just hummus, espescially without olives.