Barbecued pork bun, a roomy ballpark ain't life grand?

HAPPY EATER

September 20, 1992|By ROB KASPER

Oakland -- I ate a lot of fine food when in San Francisc recently. I ate Dungeness crab stuffed in tiny tomatoes. I ate chicken laced with garlic and cooked in a wood burning stove. I ate a cioppino, an elaborate seafood stew, served over soft polenta.

Then one day I played hooky from cuisine. I got a salami sandwich and went to a baseball game in Oakland. It was the best part of my trip. It reminded me of Baltimore.

The salami was the dry cured kind that is a specialty of the Bay area. This batch was made by the Molinari company in San

Francisco. I bought it at G. B. Ratto International Grocers, an Italian store in downtown Oakland, a few expressway exits or BART stops north of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

Ratto's is like Trinacria Macaroni on Paca Street, or like Mastellone Deli on Harford Road. It is a family-owned operation filled with strong aromas, shelves lined with cans of olive oil, a big refrigerated counter stuffed with meats and cheeses. And it has an overriding philosophy.

"I guess I am old-fashioned," Martin Durante, owner of G. B. Ratto, told me later. Durante's ancestors opened the store 98 years ago. "I look for good value. I resent it when somebody puts a ribbon on a jar and charges $2 more for it. I'm not against high-priced ingredients, . . . but they have to have good value. I can't help it. It is built in."

I talked to Durante by phone after I had visited the store. The day I was there I was in a hurry. I was trying to make the start of a 1 clock baseball game between the Oakland A's and the Seattle Mariners.

The fellow making sandwiches sensed the need for haste. Working quickly, he tossed some slices of dry salami and a slice of pepper cheese on a hunk of crusty bread. He slathered the bread with mustard, and before I could say Joe DiMaggio, I had lunch.

Or at least the first course. I also bought a bag of green olives, flavored with garlic. It cost about $3.

We got to the ballpark in plenty of time. Having grown accustomed to the masses that crowd Camden Yards every time the Orioles play there, I was pleasantly surprised to find that in Oakland, instead of a mob of almost 45,000, there would be a manageable crowd of about 30,000. I also had to tell myself to slow down, that I didn't have to rush up to the stand because the line was short. The lines were always short.

The seats my two friends and I got weren't especially good. They were in the shade under an overhang on the first base line. But they were near the concession stands.

As I polished off the salami and olives, I went searching for a beer. I found a good one, Henry Weinhard Private Reserve, a Portland, Ore., brew served on draft. Later I spotted the tap for the local beer, Anchor Steam of San Francisco.

I had smooth suds, a slab of salami, a handful of garlicky olives, and a baseball game before me. Life was good. At least for a few innings.

Then I walked around the stadium, checking out the concession stands. I stared at the "vegetarian burger," but couldn't make myself try it. I know that when you are in a new city you are supposed to be adventuresome and try new things. But try as I might, I couldn't summon up enough sense of adventure to eat a faux-meat burger.

Instead I ordered a cafe latte, strong coffee infused with milk. I had had it before, but never at a ballpark. It was just what I wanted, a refreshing jolt.

My favorite ballpark food was the barbecued pork bun, a Chinese dish sold by vendors strolling through the stadium as well as at concession stands.

The barbecued bun lived up to its name. It was stuffed with smoky bits of pork. It cost $2.75.

I could have eaten the buns forever, which was about how long the game lasted. Oakland beat Seattle 5-4. But only after both teams had used 12 pitchers, most of them in the 7th inning, an hour-long affair also known as the inning without end.

The stadium was round, very round. In an effort to find the sunshine, I sat in three different levels, the field, the plaza, and the upper deck. I never felt as close to action as I did at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. But I liked this park. It wasn't crowded. There were lots of families, not corporate types, there. You could stretch out on the seat next you. It was a ballgame, not a special event.

The Oakland team, with its solid defense, strong pitching and timely hitting, reminded me of old Oriole teams -- the ones that went to World Series. And watching a game in the Coliseum reminded me of watching games at Memorial Stadium.

The Oakland team looks as if it is headed for the playoffs this year. Maybe, if Baltimore gets lucky, the Orioles will play the A's ,, for the right to go to the World Series.

If that happens and if you go to Oakland, be sure to try the barbecued pork bun and to stop for salami at G. B. Ratto.

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