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Cinema Chow 

Discovering the delights of DeLessio while searching for a good sandwich to take to a movie

Wednesday, Oct 19 2005
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"I love my cigar," Groucho famously told a couple on his quiz show who had 22 children, "but I take it out of my mouth once in a while." Well, I love to eat, but I find it helps to stop doing it for a few weeks a year. I used to pause this way formally, by visiting one of those places called "spa" or "health resort" (or, more bluntly, "fat farm"), which distract you from hunger pangs by enforcing regimens of exercise interrupted by ritual meals of severely reduced calories. (Depending on the kitchen's concept and skill, these occasions can be delightful or annoying. I remember one sojourn at the Rancho de la Puerta when I met a tall, slender San Francisco socialite, still very much on the scene today, who told me she visited the place regularly and didn't eat anything at all while she was there -- and its vegetarian Mexican cooking was quite palatable. But each to her own.)

Now I find that even a regular vacation, with its culinary indulgences, can result in dropping a few pounds due to the many hours I spend walking around and seeing the sights. But even more successful (though that's not the aim) are my visits to film festivals, at which the enforced regimen is a diet of movies rather than water aerobics and yoga classes, and where, if you're obsessive, you don't even pause for ritual meals.

I've felt movie-starved recently, partly because my favorite moviegoing companion is 4 years old and consequently I've been scanning the ads for G- and PG-rated movies, all of which I've managed to see (my summer joke was "I haven't seen War of the Worlds, but I have seen Sky High!"). So it was easy, during Labor Day weekend at the Telluride Film Festival and the 10 days of the Toronto International Film Festival that followed almost immediately after, to choose a screening over a meal. I even skipped the nearly irresistible catered opening-night Telluride block party -- this year a Cuban feast in honor of the late novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, to whom the festival was dedicated -- in favor of Les Ponts des Arts, a self-conscious and stylized movie made by a semiobscure Franco-American auteur named Eugenè Green, though it pained me to walk past the cauldrons of steaming roast pork and black beans. (And I loved the film. It's exactly the kind of thing you go to Telluride for, with the festival's cunning mix of the best commercial offerings, like Brokeback Mountain and Walk the Line; the most challenging foreign features, such as Paradise Now and The Child; and obscurities like the complete Green retrospective and a screening of the 1929 A Cottage on Dartmoor.)

By the time I got to Toronto I was completely in the groove, slipping from movie to movie in a state of celluloid bliss. The first day alone I saw a Swedish documentary on Orson Welles' passion for Spain called The Well; an Argentine family political drama, Sisters, set in 1975; the French October 17, 1961, a fictionalized film about a bloody demonstration in Paris during the Algerian war for independence; a psychosexual French thriller starring Emmanuelle Béart called L'Enfer; and a documentary, Ballets Russes, made by San Francisco filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, that moved me to tears. And so it went.

Of course I don't go a whole two weeks without eating.

Nor am I limited to a concession-stand diet of popcorn (which I hate in its movie incarnation, as much for its infuriating noise in consumption as its cardboardy texture and flavor) and Goobers (though the Canadian Goober equivalent, Glosette, is a vastly superior product). I survive -- nay, thrive -- on a diet of sandwiches, excellent ones purveyed by a number of delis and snack shops, purchased on the fly and consumed during screenings. (I know most theaters discourage the bringing in of outside food, but that has more to do with the bottom line than with annoying your neighbors: Vide the inexplicable crunchy popcorn. Nevertheless, I've seen people consuming pizza, big pastrami sandwiches, even, once, Chinese food -- out of takeout containers! with chopsticks! -- in theaters. So I don't feel guilty about my quiet little repast.)

You'd think that after two weeks of movies and sandwiches I would have had enough. But the truth is, I return habituated to the regimen and can't quite stop cold turkey. So it was that literally the day after my plane landed I found myself standing in line, again, for sandwiches and movies.

For the sandwiches I went to DeLessio Market & Bakery, an establishment on Market I'd wanted to visit ever since I wrote about Cuban sandwiches, months ago, and a reader e-mailed me to tell me his favorite Cubano was made there. I'd passed DeLessio several times since, with its always-crowded small courtyard fenced off from the sidewalk, but I'd never gone inside. When I did, I was stunned by how packed this eccentric place is with alluring things to eat. I was ostensibly there for a sandwich or two, but I was dazzled and distracted by a display of exquisitely wrapped chocolates; a cold table chockablock with bowls and trays containing not just the expected salad-bar items, but also such novelties as grilled Thai chicken, an assortment of different olives, and amazing-looking composed salads; a hot table laden with steaming trays of roasted pork loin and lusciously cheesy macaroni and potato gratin; and an open bakery in which cakes and pastries were being frosted before my eyes. I felt like I'd stumbled into a garden of earthly delights, a life-size cornucopia from which one could pluck out the most tempting morsels and put them onto conveniently waiting plates and into takeout boxes.

Near the bakery was the sandwich trove: baskets of pre-made, wrapped cold sandwiches and a refrigerated case of panini awaiting the grill. I thought they were a little pricey (after 10 days of $5.50 sandwiches paid for with Canadian dollars), ranging from $6.95 to $7.95, but they all looked so intriguing that I walked away with three, including the just-grilled, vaunted Cubano, a pre-wrapped muffaletta, and a huge ham sandwich that was intended for the grill but whose ingredients (ham, Swiss cheese, honey mustard) looked to me as though they'd be equally good cold. On my way to the checkout counter, I couldn't resist filling a box with cold roasted broccoli in an Asian-inspired dressing (cruciferous vegetables had been conspicuously absent from my diet), and, since the counter itself was covered with enticing baked goods -- including an upside-down pear-caramel tart, a custardy croissant-and-brioche bread pudding, and an array of beautifully decorated miniature cupcakes -- I snagged a helping of meringue-topped tres leches cake.

And then I drove more than 30 miles to go to the movies. Sure, there were closer theaters, but I was drawn to the Century 25 in Union City not just because it was offering a double bill of Fantastic Four and the elusive War of the Worlds I'd missed all summer, but also because I had a happy memory of the other time I'd gone there, when it was the only Bay Area theater showing the reissue of Scarface: an immaculate, comfortable screening room and perfect projection.

During the cartoony Fantastic Four I enjoyed the still-warm Cubano, whose flattened baguette encased chunks of the superlative garlicky pork roast also available on its own on DeLessio's hot table, plus sliced ham, melty Swiss cheese, and pickles. In truth, I enjoyed half of the Cubano, discovering that what I'd thought was a pricey sandwich was in reality a bargain, since I could easily make two meals of it.

Halfway through the gripping War of the Worlds, the film relaxed its grip on me enough so that I could reach into the bag for half of the compact but stuffed muffaletta: salami, ham, mortadella, provolone, Swiss cheese, and olive salad on a seeded roll. Even distracted by Spielberg's matchless pyrotechnics, I could tell this was one knockout of a sandwich.

I was tapering off after the orgy I'd been on; the day after the double bill, the huge ham-and-Swiss (again, half of it, really), with its sweet honey mustard, was almost too perfect an accompaniment for Capote, a movie I'd managed to miss at both Telluride and Toronto. I found the film and the sandwich perfect: How clever to suggest the whole of Truman Capote's life through one six-year chunk of it, rather than the standard birth-to-death biopic; and how good a simple ham-and-cheese sandwich can be when each of its four components, including the sturdy peasant bread and tangy mustard, are of excellent quality.

The still-crunchy, slightly smoky broccoli spears and the lush cake, drenched in custard and sided with strawberries, consumed at home, tipped me over into infatuation. I was so taken with DeLessio that I had to return for a sit-down lunch, this time with my father, who had pronounced the half of the muffaletta I'd gifted him with "better than the ones I had in New Orleans," which shocked me, but only slightly. It was damned good.

We toted our trays out to a sunny sidewalk table. Dad had gotten a grilled Reuben; I'd scored a pre-wrapped house-made meatloaf on DeLessio's own focaccia, but I was more interested in the array of hot and cold food I'd assembled on a couple of plates. There was macaroni and cheese, not the soft little kiddie kind but big al dente tubes encrusted with provolone, cheddar, mozzarella, and Parmesan; what a sign called "the ultimate potato gratin," anointed with cheddar cheese, sour cream, and chopped scallions; firm Brussels sprouts heady with pesto; a superlative potato salad with chopped hard-boiled egg; tangy, citrusy beet salad; and a black bean salad, the only item I can be the least bit critical about (I would have liked more corn kernels in its assortment of vegetables). Everything was fresh, everything was appetizing, everything was made with quality ingredients. I don't think I'd ever seen such a rewarding buffet before, in which I found not one loser. There were dozens more dishes awaiting subsequent explorations.

My father's Reuben was as good as one from a New York deli. I thought I'd like the meatloaf sandwich better on sturdier bread, but that was a matter of personal choice. On the way out, I snagged a portion of tres leches for my mom and a box of six of those adorable miniature cupcakes, including vanilla cake topped with raspberry cream and coconut and chocolate topped with mint frosting, which proved so rich and satisfying that they were plenty big enough. And, helpless in the grip of DeLessio, I also picked up two chunks of distinctive "bubble-wrap" chocolate, an orange chocolate version with ground almonds and a white chocolate mint. Each was no more expensive than concession-stand chocolate, if you do the math, but as different from it as DeLessio is from most prepared-food markets, no matter how posh. My one regret is that DeLessio is not open for a late-night snack. No -- on reflection, that it's not open 24/7.

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Meredith Brody

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