OK, so summer's here and the time is right for picnics, road trips, and from-scratch meals in the long, light evenings. Truth be told, the weather in the Bay Area is conducive to picnicking virtually year-round, but summer, with its seasonal bounty of fresh corn, heirloom tomatoes, and luscious stone fruits, reminds us to seize the moment and treat ourselves to good things to eat. We can, of course, spend hours in the kitchen, preparing delicious food — many find this soothing, relaxing, replenishing of the spirit.
Or we can reap the benefits of the hours others have spent preparing delicious foods and swing by one of San Francisco's high-class takeout emporiums, which can be equally soothing, relaxing, and replenishing, of the pantry as well as the spirit. Two of the best, DeLessio Market and Bakery and Bi-Rite Market, Ali Baba-like caves of gustatory delight spilling over with goodies like overflowing cornucopias, are ripe for summer plucking. DeLessio, operating for five years at its snug Market Street location, opened a new place on Broderick about six months ago. As you walk in, past a small dining area with bright red wooden tables and chairs, the first thing you see is a stand laden with unbelievably tempting baked goods and desserts, a reminder not to skip dessert. The wise will continue on and explore the many, many possibilities ahead before becoming distracted by the sweets. There's a cold table on the right, covered with salad bar offerings both expected (potato salad) and un (cauliflower salad). On the left are baskets filled with wrapped sandwiches (tuna Niçoise, baby muffaletta), in front of a counter where you can get hot sandwiches made to order, including a pastrami-and-Swiss Reuben and a Cubano stuffed with roast pork, ham, cheese, and pickles.
Beyond the sandwiches are the hot tables, bearing an amazing array of meat and vegetable dishes ranging from grilled zucchini with red onions to delicate Atlantic salmon crusted with fragrant garlic, lemon, feta, basil, and bread crumbs; and a stellar, moist rotisserie chicken. The famed “ultimate potato gratin,” made with scallions, sour cream, and cheddar, is so rich and creamy that you're sated after a few bites. You can fill your container with anything from the hot and cold tables for $8.25 a pound.
Menu writers could learn a lot from the labels identifying the dishes here: sweet and sour carrots with cider vinegar and toasted almonds is intriguing even before you glance down at the tray and spy dried cranberries as well, which add color as well as a tangy sweetness. Ginger-roasted yams with molasses are irresistible. Polenta is tricked out with tomato jam, Parmesan, and cheddar. And every foodstuff is usefully identified with a five-item card which tells you if it's vegan, vegetarian, contains nuts or dairy, or is wheat-free.
Across the aisle, you'll find a counter filled with prepared foods to take home and heat (including, perhaps, risotto balls made with saffron rice and Reggiano, and chicken Florentine stuffed with ricotta, roasted red pepper, and spinach), and lots of salumi, with helpful servers standing by to offer suggestions and wrap things up. There's a separate cheese area, flanked by a condiment bar offering house-made garlic confit (cloves roasted in oil), black olive tapenade, and fresh strawberry jam with Tahitian vanilla bean.
Perusing the displays is something like browsing in a crowded antique store: A second pass will reveal something you didn't see before. DeLessio's is all about choice, and temptation. On one visit, the dessert cart offered nine different beautifully decorated mini-cupcakes in dizzying and baroque variety, boggling the mind as to how a baby chocolate brownie cupcake could be topped with peanut butter mousse and meringue, or how the fragile “creamsicle” yellow cupcake could be stuffed with orange curd and topped with vanilla buttercream. At $1.50 each, or $18 a dozen, they're a tender-crumbed bargain. There were seven different varieties of butter cookies, including chocolate and vanilla shortbread with apricot jam, and hazelnut milk chocolate with brown butter. The chocolate offerings featured double chocolate mousse with orange-scented white chocolate, flourless chocolate caramel tart, and chocolate sour cream cake. And house-made chocolate candies, too.
As you enter the popular Bi-Rite Market on 18th Street, a foodie magnet on its block for a decade and now surrounded by additional gastronomic destinations including Tartine Bakery, Delfina, Pizzeria Delfina, and Bi-Rite's offspring, the Bi-Rite Creamery, across the street, the first thing you'll see is a glorious display of stone fruit, carefully composed and as artful as a still life. Equally beautiful are the prepared dishes arranged in the cold cases: plump New England crab cakes, confit of duck glistening with fat, Sicilian meat balls. There's another case stacked with containers filled with salads and sides, more than 30 different items: a whole range of Middle Eastern dips and spreads (hummus, baba ghanoosh, mujadarah); grains and pastas (saffron couscous, Aegean orzo with feta, Peruvian quinoa salad); and vegetables (roasted beets with or without blue cheese; an irresistible fresh corn salad with diced cucumber, tomato, and red onions, which cheers us up whenever we spy it in our fridge). There's yummy rich chopped liver, smoked whitefish salad, and salt cod brandade. Below are microwavable packaged entrees: apricot-teriyaki chicken; miso-marinated tofu with steamed bok choy and soba noodles; chipotle barbecued chicken with mashed potatoes and summer corn — as good as a restaurant dish we had recently, but less than a third the price. Close by are cups of chocolate pots de crème and buttermilk panna cotta.
The news at Bi-Rite, heralded by little hot-pink signs on its counter, is that this week they're introducing a new sandwich menu, which will delight those eager for the shock of the new and panic those among us who are besotted with certain disappearing favorites. A plea to save Bi-Rite's grilled Cuban was deflected with a mouth-watering description of the new special, the Devil's Gulch porchetta with summer fruit mostarda and Sardinian sheep cheese. Prices remain steady at $6.95 each (and a buck more for the porchetta). The old sandwich list, especially the hot sandwiches, was something of a victim of its success: On Saturdays and Sundays, the line of eager supplicants waiting for their freshly made food would clog up the aisles. (Bi-Rite, in addition to takeout, is a full-service grocery store.) The new hot sandwiches are all designed to be made on foccacia — a grimace at this brought assurances that you could request other kinds of bread or rolls, too. Among the new hot offerings are achiote grilled chicken breast and provolone with greens, pickled red onions, and chipotle-lime mayo — with its hot, sharp, and fresh flavors, we're already admirers — and a portobello mushroom and fresh mozzarella with spinach and sun-dried tomato tapenade. New cold sandwiches include an avocado chicken salad with bacon, greens, and tomato on ciabatta; and roast beef with blue cheese, greens, and grilled red onions.
A San Francisco tradition is to tote your Bi-Rite goodies a half-block away to Dolores Park. But we head home — contrarily, we take out to stay in.