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A case of curiosities

By Paul Reidinger

AT HEART WE are all, or most of us, Peter Pans who don't want to grow up, kids in candy stores, at least when it comes to real candy stores and their lines of glass cases, gravid with goodies. One such candy store was Alfred Schilling, in the Allen Hotel; it featured, in addition to many glass cases stuffed with every sort of confection, from truffles to cakes to fantasias in marzipan, a restaurant. It was an odd sort of restaurant – a cluster of tables in the soundstage-like rear of the space, separated from the kitchen only by a line of bakers' tables – and it served an odd sort of Willie Wonka-ish food: chocolate pasta with a savory sauce and the like.

But the tides of time swept Alfred Schilling away last year (the true universal solvent, by the way, is not water but time), and the space has now morphed into DeLessio, a market and bakery that does and does not resemble its sugary forebear. Oh, the glass cases are still there, still laden with sweet things in fanciful shapes, but the old restaurant is now blocked off and the space given over to an expanded kitchen. I would not say this is a tragedy, since the setting was always a bit too industrial, a bit too chilly, to make for a welcoming dining experience.

And it's not as if you can't sit down to eat at DeLessio. You can – outside, at one of the nest of tables set up, Parisian style, on the sidewalk terrace. It can get chilly there, too, of course, though chill never bothers Parisians, who sit at their sidewalk cafés even with February snowflakes whirling about their heads. Rain – well, that's another matter, in case of which you simply gather up your gastronomic loot and flee home. The deal at DeLessio is (high-end) takeout, after all.

And there is an unmistakable home-style cheeriness in the food, beginning with the soups and stews kept warm in a pair of big stainless-steel serve-yourself pots. A tomato-basil soup ($3.95) was, at first blush, an odd wintertime offering (nothing, except possibly corn, says summer quite like tomatoes and basil), but DeLessio's thick, rich version has some of the same sustaining weight as the roasted-squash soups we more typically associate with the dark, cold, wet months.

Spinach-miso soup ($3.95) needed a bit of salt but, so revived, was sufficiently spinachy as to awaken childhood memories of those Popeye the Sailor Man cartoons – the scarfing of canned spinach, et cetera. Caribbean coconut chicken soup ($3.95), on the other hand, set off no such reveries; it was just good – quite like its Thai cousin, tom ka gai, and notably spicy. And a chicken-artichoke stew ($4.25) was a meal in itself.

Or could have been, in a press. But such a press is unlikely to arise, given DeLessio's glass-case cornucopia. I was quite taken by a French beef stew ($5.25), whose pastry topping consisted of dough coins, neatly arranged atop the dish, like some kind of pavement, and baked to a bronze gold. Underneath: tender meat, carrots, peas, gravy. You can see where the frozen-food conglomerates got the idea for beef pot pie and, at the same time, why industrially produced foodstuffs, however noble their derivation, simply cannot be compared to dishes that have known the touch of a human hand.

No dish illuminates this contrast more than DeLessio's signature macaroni and cheese ($7.25 a pound). I've never met anyone who doesn't like mac and cheese, though far too many of us grew up with the boxed kind. DeLessio's, by contrast, relies on old-fashioned staples – butter, cream, Gruyère cheese – to produce its creamy tang. When you taste the real thing, you know why people have always loved it and why big business couldn't resist putting it – really, a version of it – in a box.

There is the occasional glimpse of wider horizons. Shrimp cakes ($3.95 for a coaster-size patty) are distinctly perfumed with ginger and served with a good curry mayonnaise. And vegetarians will find suitable items, such as an onion-rich moussaka ($5.25), the lasagna-like dish in which slices of eggplant take the place of pasta ribbons. But, lest anyone get the wrong idea, DeLessio also offers meat loaf in individual though rather huge servings ($6.25 each) that resemble peewee-league footballs. I am an indiscriminate lover of meat loaf, so I was glad to learn (from a friend who is an almost equally indiscriminate disliker of meat loaf) that DeLessio's is quite good. The secret? I suspect a goodly portion of veal in the mix.

Has big business turned meat loaf into a boxed item yet? I haven't seen any such thing, but then, I'm afraid to look. But it's hard not to wonder why people, pressed for time and energy, as so many of us so often are, would settle for boxed meat loaf – or mac and cheese, or French beef stew – when you can get the real thing so easily, so quickly, so affordably, at DeLessio.

DeLessio Market and Bakery. 1695 Market (at Valencia), S.F. (415) 552-5559. Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Sat., 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. MasterCard, Visa. Not noisy. Wheelchair accessible.