Slice of Life

A sweet corner of Italy just over the Ponte del Cancello Dorato

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.

Rulli learned from his mother's parents the importance of family: his Italian-born grandparents ran an inn in the spa town of Calistoga, between the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, and as children Gary and his brother and sister visited them regularly. "The biggest thing we learned from our grandparents," Rulli says, "was 'You're coming up to see us every weekend.'" In Italy he saw that successful small businesses were usually family enterprises.

Jeannie Rulli comes into the store every day while the couple's two sons, Giancarlo, nine, and Alessandro, five, are at school. Rulli's sister, Lauren Gardner, manages the staff and graciously serves customers from early morning until late afternoon. Her nephews generally stop by for breakfast and after-school ice cream accompanied by Jeannie's parents, Margaret and Charles Miglia, who live a few miles away and often baby-sit. Rulli's mother, Lucille Doyle, comes in every morning to do the books. His father, Robert Doyle, an electrician who wires convention booths at the Moscone Center, in downtown San Francisco, looks in on his way home to see if his son needs any repairs on the many pieces of equipment he bought in Italy. Jeannie's father, a retired mechanical engineer, also helps with maintenance, occasionally hand-milling replacement parts. And, of course, Robert visits with his grandchildren and picks up his wife; the Doyles also live several miles away. Gary and Jeannie live twenty-five feet from the store.

IN the eleven years since it opened, Emporio Rulli has grown slowly and carefully, expanding into the two storefronts on either side of the original pastry shop. The decisions to roast coffee and make chocolates by hand were deliberate, reached only when the Rullis could afford the equipment and the help. Other changes just happened, as the store began attracting devotees. The Montecatini wafer-making press, whose six hydraulic pistons stamp the store's logo onto Rulli's cialde, came from a wine salesman who had dreamed of starting a chain of wafer shops but instead went to work in Italy and sold the machine to Rulli at cost. It is ably run by Esmerelda Lopez-Garcia, who began as a helper clearing dishes and chose to stay because the shop is so like the ones in her native Mexico. Augie Morello, who wears white-cotton gloves and calls people "dear" as she helps them select chocolates, is a Larkspur neighbor who loved the shop and the family so much that she asked if she could volunteer there mornings. Ann Golson, an early customer, was so taken with the shop that she persuaded the Rullis to start their catalogue; she now runs the shipping department.

Visitors from many Latin American and European countries say that the shop reminds them of home, and a number of local children and their parents consider the shop almost a second home. "Customers will move away -- Marin is transient," Rulli says. "They move to Tahoe, or to Belgium, and it's fantastic that when they come back, they still feel like it's their place."

Emporio Rulli's wafers and panettone and chocolates and coffee are available in the catalogue or from its Web site, and you can join a pastry-of-the-month club to receive elaborate tarts or order the plain little butter cookies and biscotti that Rulli has learned to make on his annual refresher tours of Italian pastry shops. For Easter, the store's second-biggest holiday, Rulli makes big hollow chocolate eggs to be filled on request with special keepsakes for family and friends, as is done in Italy. He also makes colomba, the slightly lighter Easter version of panettone, which is baked in a wide, dove-shaped paper form, with only a bit of candied orange and a crunchy topping of whole almonds and sugar that can by itself be reason enough to buy one. Rulli's panettone is pleasingly spongy, very buttery, and richly flavored; the shop sells 9,000 pounds of it in December alone and 5,000 more during the rest of the year. For all of it Rulli uses a piece of "natural yeast" starter that he brought back from Italy twelve years ago -- a gift from his Milanese mentor.

Nothing could make Easter morning more festive than a Rulli chocolate egg and a wide almond-covered dove (warmed in a low oven for ten or fifteen minutes) served with coffee, the tray placed either temptingly near or deliberately far from anyone who knows how good the topping is. But not even that matches the experience of stepping from northern California into northern Italy and ordering a cappuccino and a croissant -- the kind Italians call cornetti or just "brioche," which are yeastier and much less rich than their French counterparts, infinitely preferable, and virtually unknown in this country.

I wish there were a Rulli near my office. So do many San Franciscans. Two coffee bars operated by Rulli are scheduled to open at the San Francisco Airport in July. But he regards the idea of opening another full-service pastry, chocolate, and ice cream shop the way he regards students fresh out of cooking school who expect high salaries right away. "You have to learn over and over again, repeat every step," he says. "Time and experience you can't learn in a book."

And a book, I would add, can't build a family.

Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of

Photograph by Philip Salaverry.

The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; Slice of Life - 00.02; Volume 285, No. 2; page 95-97.