FROM the street the maroon glass panels seem like an elegant apparition. "Pasticceria," one says, in gilded italic lettering framed by gold curlicue borders. "Gelateria," "Caffè," "Torrefazione," say three more, signifying that ice cream and coffee, as well as pastry, are served behind the spotless plate-glass windows, and that coffee beans are roasted on the premises.
Everything inside Emporio Rulli, too, seems like an apparition. To the right is a dark-paneled shop displaying handmade chocolates on silver trays and canisters of coffee beans on a white-marble counter. Lighted wall shelves hold decorative porcelain and quilted brocade gift boxes, wedding-cake brides and grooms, and bulbous glass bowls filled with gilded, silvered, and pastel-colored almonds. Filling another wall is an impressive selection of Italian wines. In the adjoining room -- the pastry shop proper -- are glass cases filled with dozens of miniature pastries and cookies, fruit tarts, and many kinds of freshly made gelato in deep rectangular pans. Through a wide portal is the café, with a dozen tables and a long banquette beneath a fanciful mural in the style of Tiepolo, showing bakers busily at work beside a Venetian lagoon. You can choose the sandwich or pastry that most appeals to you by pointing to it on one of the display trays, which uniformed servers constantly refill and dust to clear away crumbs and powdered sugar. Every accoutrement is typical of a first-class Italian pastry shop: the metal trays, the decorative boxes, the display cases, even the long-handled shallow spoons in the sugar bowl at the bar and the tiny napkins printed with the Emporio Rulli logo.
Only the ambition and variety would seem unusual were this shop in, say, Turin, home of Italy's most beautiful and lovingly tended cafés and pasticcerias. And the accoutrements were indeed bought in Italy. But this is Larkspur, California. The kindly beige-haired woman behind the counter asks a customer pushing a stroller not "Cosa desidera?" but "Hard to believe it's so warm near the holidays, isn't it, dear?"
MARIN County may be famously scenic, but it is not an obvious spot for what may well be the closest thing in America to a top-flight Italian pastry shop and café. "It's just like stepping into Italy," my San Franciscan friend Pam Hunter promised when she instructed me to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and follow the road past yellow clapboard houses to the carefully quaint main street of Larkspur. Each time I step through the doors of Emporio Rulli, I feel I've entered Oz.
To choose a Californian comparison, Rulli resembles Disneyland in its faultlessly friendly service, complete cleanliness, and regional range. A shop that makes its own panettone, for instance, as many pastry shops around Milan and Turin do, will not always offer it year-round, as Rulli does, and will seldom offer for breakfast, alongside toasted wedges of panettone, the Florentine specialty budino di riso -- an oval tart filled with rice pudding. Not even a pastry shop in Montecatini, the Tuscan spa town midway between Florence and Pisa, would necessarily offer budino di riso beside stacks of the town's famous cialde -- salad-plate-sized beige wafers between which are sandwiched chopped almonds and vanillin-flavored sugar. A Montecatini pastry shop would rarely take the trouble to make from scratch panforte, a sticky spiced confection made of honey, nuts, and candied fruit, even if it is the best-known sweet of nearby Siena, Florence's historical rival. Only very large, well-staffed pastry shops devote equal care to hand-dipped chocolates and ice cream; only dry-goods stores or specialty shops roast their own coffee. Emporio Rulli, in other words, is a kind of Disney Main Street, with the specialties of many Italian regions polished up and presented all together.
The difference is that Rulli has soul. It's much more than a shiny facsimile because, almost miraculously, the family structure and even the customers' attitudes that turn Italian cafés, restaurants, and food shops into impromptu parties are reproduced too. (Supermarkets have lately made an incursion into Italian life; the intimacy and familiarity of food shopping is threatened, and many people fear that eating habits will follow.) The surprise is that the eponymous owner is not a homesick transplanted Italian but a mall-going California kid whose first job, just up the highway, was frying doughnuts to pay for his Camaro.
Gary Rulli spoke no Italian and had never visited his maternal family's homeland before he finished high school. (Rulli is his mother's family name, which Gary Doyle decided to use when he became interested in Italian pastry; the Doyle heritage is Alsatian, Irish, and Scottish). He had, however, progressed from the doughnut shop to a long-established bakery in North Beach, the Italian-American neighborhood of San Francisco. He knew he liked to bake. But when he visited Turin, where a grandfather's cousin lived, its pastry shops came as a revelation. So did the honor that Italy still accords artisans. "You weren't just a baker," Rulli, a friendly and energetic bearded man of thirty-eight, told me when I recently visited. "It's an art, a tradition. Anyone who was the proprietor of one of these shops was a very well respected person."
Rulli made a career choice alien to his high school classmates: he worked for room and board in a Milanese pastry shop, living with the owner's family and learning Italian on the job. He paid special attention to the "master" chefs he encountered, who were happy to pass along their life experiences. When he came home, after two years, he followed a very old script. Bearing in mind one of the expressions he had picked up, "L'altra metà della pasticceria è la moglie" ("The other half of the pastry shop is the wife"), he married a young Italian-American woman and invited her to help him open his dream store. Today Jeannie Rulli, a striking, dark-haired woman, puts her graphics training and experience to work designing display cases and chocolate boxes for the store, and also its catalogue.