A few things about Viola Buitoni: She’s Italian, she’s a mother, she can cook, she lives in the Mission. Find out how these elements intersect in her life in this series of articles and videos.
Writing is like cooking for me: I open the door, look at what’s inside and wait for inspiration.
Which is how I decided that sitting on the floor in front of my open refrigerator is the best place to the answer my editor’s question: Where and how does an Italian cook shop in the Mission?
What I like most about shopping in the Mission for my Italian pantry and fridge is that it requires more than one stop. The chase is my own soothing and exhilarating hunt, bringing me new treasures with every season.
Because Italian cooking is essentially seasonal, greens and fruits are always the first block around which I build my cooking. Starting in mid-April, my preferred stop will be the Mission Community Market on Bartlett and 22nd streets. Until then I have been partial to the care with which the folks at Bi-Rite choose and showcase the work of local farmers in their gorgeously strollable produce corner. Lately it’s been toothsome bitter salads, crucifers of all kinds and colors and an impressive array of citruses. Carrots, celery and onions are the basic trinity of much of Italian cooking, and Bi-Rite’s carrots, sweetly delicious and from trusted soils, always meet my conditio sine qua non, that the leaves still be attached.
Bi-Rite also has other necessities: finishing olive oils, great organic grains and pasta and, around the holidays, a collection of sweets that can always take me back home. While I like their cheese counter well enough, when we Italians say formaggio, more often than not, we are talking about parmigiano. It’s a lenitive, a curative, a strengthener, a first food for babies and one of the last my mother could still stomach as cancer was having the better of her.
For this wonder food, I head to Lucca Ravioli on Valencia. This delightfully Old World Italian deli is a resource for several reasonably priced, quality staples. They will grate your formaggio on the spot as long as you get at least a one-pound piece. They also carry more pasta shapes than anyone else in the city and a number of good cooking olive oils; big, fat Sicilian anchovies packed in salt, and baccalá; capers and As do Mar, my tinned tuna of choice; caffé and Aperol, a great aperitivo drink.
The focaccia from Liguria Bakery saves one a trip to North Beach — get more than you think you need, eat what you will and freeze the rest, then treat yourself to oven-fresh focaccia when the craving hits. Oh, and they carry pezzettini, those little parts needed to keep your stove-top espresso maker producing perfect coffee for decades.
The cheese box in my refrigerator holds more than parmigiano, and to keep it full and happy, Rainbow Grocery Cooperative is my counter of choice. Their variety is fearless, adventurous, and their cheese staff steady and knowledgeable. Robiola, gorgonzola, pecorino…you name it, they have it, and often from small farms. Their organic, raw milk parmigiano, aged for 36 months, the kind you eat in chunks, is amazing. I also love that they have three to four different kinds of ricotta to which I can turn, depending on its intended use. I stop by the bulk section to get my needed beans and grains, and for fresh yeast and olives.
Because I like to save the best for last, plus it’s on my way to picking up my child from school, I always close at Avedano’s on Cortland Street. This is more than a butcher shop, it is a place with an unwavering commitment to sustainable connections with dozens of farmers and artisanal food craftspeople locally and globally. This is where I go for the cleanest, tenderest meat ever. Chris, the manager, trained in the region of Chianti with one of Italy’s best-known butchers, and you can see that old-school approach as the driving force behind their selections and cuts.
When Christmas came around and I wanted to make galantina, a glorious chicken and pork terrine with black truffles that takes three to four days to complete, I showed up at Avedano’s with one of my Italian cooking bibles. After translating all that I would need, Chris found it for me, and then proceeded to skillfully take the bones out of a chicken, whose now-foldable carcass I used to hold the galantina together.
A feature of Avedano’s particularly suited to Italian cookery is their cured meats, some made on the premises and some chosen from select curemasters. Their house-made guanciale yields a bucatini all’amatriciana as perfect as any in a Roman trattoria, and their porchetta rivals that of the Saturday morning truck at the local market in my hometown of Perugia. And the Tuscan pork, a kind of pork shoulder confit that Chris mastered while in Chianti, makes a perfect sandwich.
Additionally, Melanie, one of the lovely owners, keeps a small, seasonally rotating array of fresh, locally purveyed perishables, and some rare shelf-stable goods, many of which are actually Italian imports. I am hooked on the Sicilian tuna roe spread in olive oil and on the pici, a type of thick, rustic spaghetti typical of central Italy.
Last but not least: They carry perfect eating eggs. You see, I distinguish eating and cooking eggs, a source of much hilarity to the Husband. Nice organic eggs will do in a dough or batter, but if I am poaching, frying or making a frittata, I turn to the pasture-raised eggs from Soul Food Farm that Avedano’s carries. Book them, though, as they quickly run out.
There is one last omnipresent, stranded-on-a-desert-island good on my pantry shelf: pelati, peeled tomatoes conserved in water, often with some basil. I can those myself at the end of each summer, but that’s for another article.