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Picnic Time! 

Wednesday, Aug 5 1998
Gira Polli
659 Union (at Powell), 434-4472. Open daily 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: the pits. Muni via the 15 Third, 30 Stockton, 41 Union, and 45 Greenwich.

Rose's Cafe
2298 Union (at Steiner), 775-2200. Open Monday through Thursday 7:30 to 10 p.m., Friday 7:30 to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 to 11 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: somewhat possible. Muni via the 22 Fillmore, 41 Union, and 45 Greenwich.

2060 Chestnut (at Pierce), 929-9300. Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: possible. Muni via the 22 Fillmore, 28 19th Avenue, 30 Stockton, and 43 Masonic.

Vivande Porta Via
2125 Fillmore (at California), 346-4430. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; deli open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni via the 1 California, 3 Jackson, and 22 Fillmore.

The rabid right has it wrong about how San Francisco gets scourged for its sins. The Goddess regularly unleashes her hot spells, fires, and tornadoes on the God-fearing Bible Belt -- while we just get a little Pacific High on all the national picnic holidays. (Remember the fogged-over fireworks July 4?) Well, we can take our 40 lashes with a wet angel-hair -- instead of pre-planning our picnics, we watch the skies.

To carpe the sunny diem when you see one, you may not have time to cook -- but takeout solves that problem. For my hypothetical picnic, I went to a quartet of Italian eateries that now serve in-house but first won their reps with stellar takeout -- after all, Italian food alfresco is currently very fashionable, and the Bible does say to turn the other chic.

(I also tried several "Italian" items including a chemical-injected herb-roasted chicken from a Safeway deli; the answer is: No. Andronico's proves a better source for affordable Italianate picnics, but its location is regrettably convenient only to Golden Gate Park, aka the Big Green Chilly).

Choosing similar menus from each source, I first tasted everything at room temperature (except for chilled desserts -- surely you can find cooler room among the beers for a little tiramisu, too). Then I refrigerated the food overnight and brought it back to room temperature the next day, to see how the dishes would hold up if you picked them up after work to eat the next afternoon.

Gira Polli
Gira Polli is a snazzy-looking North Beach eat-in/takeout spot where you can gawk at chickens turning on the wood-fired rotisseries as you wait for your own bird. The chicken ($15 whole/$12 half) is Gira Polli's raison d'étre. It's a small bird (and pricey for its size) but all the more tender for it, with very moist dark meat and nearly moist breast meat. The brown, crisp skin is suffused with sunshiny Sicilian flavors -- lemon juice touched with rosemary and garlic. Hard rolls are also included, but they turn rocky overnight, and the wine-braised "Palermo potatoes" and veggies don't reheat well.

An antipasto misto ($6.75/$10.50) offered nibbles of nearly all Gira Polli's appetizers. I loved the delicious artichoke bottoms marinated in a mild, non-greasy vinaigrette; the flavorful, chewy prosciutto was a pleasure to gnaw with the soft, mild, fresh mozzarella, even if the accompanying tomatoes (both sliced and diced) were underripe. I wished the roast peppers had been marinated, instead of just recently sprinkled with capers, small black olives, and olive oil. Salty smoked salmon was a mediocre grade and cut, with unappetizing gray streaks. In the marinated calamari, the tentacles were pleasantly chewy, but the rings were tough and bland and dead by morning.

Two barely sweet desserts were picnical perfection: Moist, lemony cheesecake ($4.25) was tartly refreshing, while a light, boozy tiramisu ($5.25) was my heart's delight, its ladyfingers soaked in espresso and amaretto, enclosing a thin layer of rich mascarpone cheese and topped with a thicker layer of whipped cream.

Picnic picks: spit-roast chicken, prosciutto with fruit ($6), artichokes with Gorgonzola and pine nuts ($6.25), mozzarella fresca with tomatoes, herbs, red onions, and olives ($6/$9.50), antipasto misto, cheesecake, tiramisu.

Rose' Cafe
Light, bright, and handsome, with sidewalk and bar seating and cozy tables, Read Hearon's casual spinoff of Rose Pistola's started life as a takeout but is now mainly eat-in, with a longish wait (about 15 minutes) for cold food to go. Finding appropriate picnic foods here was no picnic; worse, unlike the real-life Rose ("Pistola") Evangelista, the menu offers quite small quantities for relatively large sums. The best picnic dish was the light, crackly focaccia bread stuffed with portobello mushrooms and Teleme cheese ($9). Rewrapped in foil, the squares kept perfectly at room temperature and easily reheated on a warm car-hood. Also lovely was a mixture of ripe cluster-tomato slices and buffalo mozzarella marinated in rich olive oil with black and green "house-cured" olives ($8.25) -- except there were only three small half-slices each of tomato and cheese for my nine bucks (with tax).

This, and all other salads I tried, was dominated by unadvertised heaps of dressed spring greens salad -- a poor picnicker: It wilts in the heat and sogs out when chilled. A "red and gold beet salad with Ricotta Salata and watercress" ($7.25) had no cress, but I liked the contrast of the spring mix's nutty arugula with the sweet dice of "Harvard"-style pickled beets and the salty soft cheese. A misnomered albacore "caponata" ($7.50) included dry white canned tuna, hard-cooked egg, cherry tomatoes, fennel-bulb shreds, soggy bread cubes, and a vast, all-permeating pile of raw red onion slivers. Was it caponata, salade niçoise, panzanella -- or just an identity crisis in a styrofoam box?

Rose's doesn't offer chicken in bulk, so I settled for a "terrorized chicken" sandwich ($6) on a heavier cousin of focaccia. The fowl, more terrifying than terrorized, was a blackened chicken breast laden with hot pepper and charred rosemary with a medicinal flavor. The lower piece of bread was minimally moistened by a millimeter's glaze of mustard aioli and a stingy layer of fennel slivers; the top, like the slab of bird, was dead dry. The hero sandwich (ham, salami, cheddar, tomato, olive oil, etc.) looks a better bet. No picnic-appropriate desserts were available that evening.

Picnic picks: stuffed focaccia, tomatoes with mozzarella (shed the greens), hero sandwich ($5.50).

Rosti looks like a rural inn in Italy, and specializes in Tuscan food, especially pollo al mattone ($12.45 whole/$9 half), chicken seasoned with rosemary and garlic and grilled under a brick "to seal in the flavors." Unlike most chickens, the seasoning isn't just skin deep, but imbues the flesh itself. The breast was dryer than most, though. The accompanying rosemary potatoes are reheatable in foil (on a hibachi, for example). I also tried a rustica sandwich ($7.75) of roast turkey with radicchio, artichoke hearts, and a lemony dressing; it seemed arid at arrival but was fabulous the next day, when the dressing had permeated bread, fowl, and veggies.

A special stuffed artichoke ($6) featured a huge, hollowed-out thistle filled with moist, lemony bread cubes, topped with tomatoes and green bell pepper dice. The flavors were complex enough to keep us coming back for more. An antipasto misto ($8.75) provides a choice of three appetizers: Marinated eggplant in a light tomato sauce ($3.25 separately) was balanced right on the border between lean and rich, firm and gooey; tonno e fagioli ($3.25) had dry white albacore with rich white canneloni beans, a great olive oil, and a scatter of fresh chives; and insalata de mare ($4.25) had old-tasting calamari and shrimp with chopped veggies and a tart lemony dressing; the squid tasted even staler the next day. The scampi salad ($9.25) had plump prawns with greenery, croutons, and an acerbic mustardy dressing; the caprese salad ($8) included unripe tomatoes and oddly bland buffalo mozzarella, lightly marinated in olive oil and basil. For dessert, tiramisu ($4.50) was sweet, heavy, and chocolatey.

Picnic picks: roast chicken, rustica sandwich, stuffed artichoke, marinated eggplant, tuna and bean salad, perhaps tiramisu.

Vivande Porta Via
Picnic heaven at last! At the deli counter in front of the restaurant, Sicilian superchef Carlo Middione and his sous-chefs just seem to pour out an endless array of inventive, sunny, savory bites that are perfect for alfresco eating -- at fair prices, too. Middione makes a spicy southern version of pollo al mattone (marinated in olive oil and red pepper flakes); there were none left when I arrived on the late side, so I got a cold, spit-roasted half of a rosemary chicken (just $4, Safeway's price!), a small half-bird nicely done, tied in contortions so that the thighs protected the breast and kept it moist.

Consider: marinated veggies, white bean salad, pasta salads, eggplant sandwiches, frittatas, individual cheese-tarts and "hand-pies," not to mention pátes, cheeses, deli meats, and complicated breads. My favorites this time were: mandorlata ($12/pound) of sauteed red and green peppers with tiny, exotic raisins and crunchy almond slivers; pasticcio ($3.50), a square of pastry surrounding spiced ham and mild yummy cheese; goat cheese with roasted garlic ($6 for a whole cheese), which is what the Goddess wants you to spread on crackers or sliced baguettes, one of those perfect, simple combinations from the earth, thrilling when softened by the sun. And the potato salad ($8/pound) -- yes, every American picnic needs it, even if it's an Italianate picnic -- had unpared red potatoes with bits of red pepper and chives in a savory mayo dressing. Pared down to essentials, it embodied beautiful, harmonic balance. What didn't I like? The very charred capinatina (grilled eggplant salad) was pretty fierce, and the individual apple tart (weighty, lardy) wasn't a great dessert.

Picnic picks: Go wild, you've found the secret source.

About The Author

Naomi Wise

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