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Revisiting G.B. Ratto & Co.

March 23, 2011 |  6:00 am

When I was  in Oakland recently driving around the revitalized downtown, I got the itch to stop by G.B. Ratto & Co. International Grocery on Washington Street. Maybe I’d pick up some mastic or some exotic dried beans, some non-instant couscous or any number of myriad ingredients that made the market an Ali Baba’s cave for the fledgling cook I was back then.

I remember taking the bus from Berkeley to downtown Oakland with a long list of ingredients for dishes I wanted to cook from Claudia Roden’s "Middle Eastern Cookery" or Paula Wolfert’s "Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco." 

The place was always packed, the checkers fast and efficient. I found aged vinegars, walnut oil, branches of dried oregano from Sicily or Greece, filo dough -- all the gourmet items that we take for granted now but that were so hard to come by then. Whatever you wanted, Ratto had, or could get it.

I found a parking space in front. The awning looked just the same, spelling out RATTO and then in smaller letters, "Since 1897." 

The window display should have been the clue, a dispirited arrangement of silver and blue balls left over from Christmas. I walked in and before my eyes adjusted to the dark, caught a whiff of the old heady scent.

But Ratto isn’t the same at all. The displays are sparse. Aisles and aisles are gone, replaced by some tables and chairs at the back, a piano. The whole place has an air of neglect. And there certainly wasn’t a crowd of cooks clamoring for vanilla beans or French rolling pins. I took a slow walk around the deli case, which is now filled with quite ordinary cheeses and cold cuts, and left. Mistake. If I’d never walked in, I could have kept that memory of rainy afternoons spent sniffing spices and rummaging through the shelves of Oakland’s one and only international grocery.

-- S. Irene Virbila

Photo by S. Irene Virbila / Los Angeles Times