Death of a Deli

Mike Cresci just wanted to sell his raviolis. But the old neighborhood never accepted him.

The peach-colored shelves of the Florence Ravioli Factory and Deli in North Beach were nearly bare two Fridays ago. The clean, claylike smell of ravioli dough lingered in the air, though the factory portion of the store lay still. Bebop played softly on the stereo as owner Mike Cresci stood gloomily behind the deli case, presiding over a dwindling stock of Parmesan, salami, and prosciutto. Customers trickled in, inspecting bottles of grapefruit syrup in the bargain bin before settling on a box or two of dry pasta, or a plastic tub of homemade marinara sauce.

In just three days, the 58-year-old ravioli works would be no more.

"Is there a whole prosciutto in the back for some old lady?" called one of Cresci's two employees from the store's rear, where a pleasant, pink-and-sienna mural of the tiled roofs of Florence, Italy, covered the wall.

"Yeah," answered Cresci. "It's on top of the shelf there."

"It's really sad you guys are going out of business," said Andy Katz, a local property manager who was taking advantage of the pasta sale and snapping a few farewell pictures of the mural. "Soon, this whole city is just going to be Pottery Barn and Starbucks."

Cresci -- a middle-aged man with tired blue eyes and sweat-matted brown hair above a furrowed brow -- accepted the condolence with a wan smile. Nice words, but they came too late. Cresci is more than a little bitter about his experience in North Beach.

"The neighborhood just didn't support us," he said. "The local people are angry that we're going, but the local people here will drive two miles to go to Costco to save $3 on cheese."

Cresci bought Florence Ravioli, at 1412 Stockton St., 2 1/2 years ago. Before that, he'd owned a 115-seat restaurant, the Apple Café, near Placerville on Highway 50. But he loved cooking, especially raviolis, and so he bought Florence. "Raviolis are very creative," said Cresci, who loved inventing new fillings like Peking duck.

He happily installed new ravioli-making machines that cost $75,000. But after enduring a divorce and two burglaries, and tearing up his hand in an old mixer, Cresci watched his little ravioli plant fall apart.

"This was the worst business experience of my life," he said.

Florence never developed a big following in the neighborhood like Molinari's, the Italian deli on Columbus famous for its mouthwatering sandwiches. Instead, tourists were Cresci's main customers. The first year he owned the shop, he turned a profit. But when tourism tanked after 9/11, the shop floundered while his rent soared to $8,000 a month from $5,000.

Cresci had other liabilities, too: He's only half Italian, and he lives in faraway Petaluma. As a result, he said, old-time Italians in the neighborhood slighted his deli. His employees couldn't slice the prosciutto thin enough. They didn't all know how to speak Italian. They didn't have sausages and cheeses hanging from the ceiling, the way the old owners did. And they were politically suspect, having placed a gay pride rainbow sticker in Florence's window.

"A lot of people came in here and said, 'Do you know what that means?'" recounted employee Carlos Quinthanilla about the sticker. "They said, 'It's going to bring down business.'"

It also didn't help that the Panelli Bros Deli, a popular, old-school, family-run business, was right across the street, inviting the inevitable comparisons. When the Panellis retired last year, Supervisor Aaron Peskin arranged for them and their wives to be driven around town in a limousine with a police motorcycle escort. With Florence folding, Cresci will not be getting a similar send-off.

"I couldn't even get a meeting with Peskin," he griped.

Peskin replied that there's nothing he can do about rent increases. And anyway, he said, the Panellis "were as venerable in North Beach as St. Francis of Assisi Church. With Florence, it's one less Italian deli. But if I could wave a magic wand and bring them back, I would."

The customers who wandered in and out of Florence Ravioli on its final Friday ranged from the occasional buyer to the die-hard fan. Donna Vozar shopped there three times a week for years.

"It was great for quick dinners when I was pregnant," said Vozar, a North Beach resident whose infant son was strapped to her chest. "They were the only ones besides Williams-Sonoma who carried Fini balsamic vinegar." She looked dolefully at the empty shelf where the imported Italian vinegar had been.

With the demise of Florence and Panelli Bros, Molinari's is the last Italian deli in North Beach. Little Joe's, a popular Italian restaurant on Broadway, is moving to Van Ness. The ongoing exodus of Italian businesses, a process that began decades ago, spooks many longtime North Beach residents.

A few expressed concern about the future of Little City Meats, a homey, idiosyncratic-looking butcher shop that makes its own sausages and posts handwritten recipes in the windows. Little City, run for 60 years by the Spinali family, is on the same block as Florence, and has the same landlord.

Mike Spinali, grandson of Little City's founder, said his shop is in no immediate danger of closing, since it's on a different lease schedule. But when the lease expires, will the rent jump to unaffordable levels?

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