Sunday, May 15, 2011
(Above: Paul and Renee)
Whenever my sister, who lives in Los Angeles, comes to visit, the first thing we always do is have dinner at her favorite Chinese restaurant, Renee's Place in Albany. (She's addicted to the rolling lettuce chicken; I usually go for the orange beef.)
The restaurant has been owner Renee Wang's dream ever since she came to this country from China in 1986, leaving behind a promising career as first violin with the Shanghai Chamber Orchestra.
After working in restaurants for 10 years, she finally saved enough to open up her own place in 1996. And she made it exactly the way she wanted it: only the freshest organic ingredients; a peaceful, even serene, atmosphere and, above, all, strict adherence to authenticity.
It's a foodie's paradise. But, unfortunately, not even a great restaurant like this is immune to the recession, and Renee and her staff are struggling hard to keep it going.
Meanwhile, I read in the paper that the A.G. Ferrari chain of high-end Italian specialty food stores has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
This doesn't mean they're going out of business. But still, it's an alarming sign.
I've known the owner, Paul Ferrari, for 15 years. His story started long before he was born - in 1917, when his grandfather, Annabile, was a teenager in Italy. Annabile's older brother, Camillo, was drafted into the army and killed in World War I.
When their father heard the news, he turned to Annabile and said, "That's it! I'm not giving them another son to kill! Tomorrow, you leave for America!"
Six weeks later, young Annabale arrived in San Francisco. He worked hard and saved his money, and in 1919 he opened his first specialty food store, which eventually grew to 13.
When Paul inherited the business in 1994, his contribution was to take it back to its roots. Paradoxically, the food at A.G. Ferrarri is even more authentic today than it was in his grandfather's day.
Paul gets his pickled green tomatoes from a convent of Trappist nuns who live outside Rome. His olive oil comes from an Italian count named Duccio Corsini, who lives in Tuscany and gives his farm workers their choice: They can be paid either in cash or in olive oil. They always choose the olive oil.
His sunflower honey comes from a beekeeper named Daniele Devalle ("Daniel of the valley") who lives in Piedmont (Italy, not California).
But not every year. Recently, some of the bees started straying to neighboring fields. The honey was still delicious, but it wasn't 100 percent sunflower. For a purist like Devalle, that's an imfamata.
"I won't sell it to you because you're a fellow Italian," he told Paul. "I'll sell it to the Germans; it's good enough for them." (Demonstrating once again that the Italians still haven't forgiven the Germans for World War II.)
But the good news is that the Trappist nuns have promised to pray for the bees. So keep your fingers crossed.
I've written many columns saying we should rally around our local schools and non-profits in these hard times. But local businesses like Renee's Place and A.G. Ferrari are a vital part of our community, too.
Whatever your favorite local business is, it deserves your support. We all need to take care of each other.