Fiore Market Café is one of the culinary jewels of South Pasadena. It’s an avatar of a city that operates at a slower pace than most of Los Angeles — a city that, despite being 15 minutes from downtown L.A., feels more like a small town in the Midwest.
Hidden in an enclave of the Fremont Centre Theatre, Fiore is a pint-sized operation. The café seats no more than 38. The menu is minuscule: just a handful of sandwiches, salads, soups and baked goods. The food is slow in coming, and it's only open for lunch. Slow and small. But therein lies the appeal.
The “mom and pop” behind Fiore are Anne and Bill Disselhorst. They met at a now-extinct restaurant in Pasadena in 1986 when Anne was working her way through college as a waitress and Bill was her manager.
“I wasn’t supposed to date her,” says Bill, “so it was pretty much hush-hush for a while.” In July they’ll have been married 28 years.
Bill has spent his life in the restaurant business, from the bottom of the food industry chain to director of operations for a Westside restaurant group. Five years ago he lost his job, and he and Anne took it as a sign to embark on their own adventure. They were drawn to South Pasadena’s quiet, tree-lined charm, and Bill locked onto the space adjoining the theater on Fremont Avenue. “I just liked the way that entrance looked with the awnings,” he says. Anne liked the entrance, too, but had her reservations.
“It was so ugly,” she laughs. “When he showed it to me it was just desolate. There were bars on the windows. But I knew it had character. I knew we could do something with it.”
They built the café as they would build their sandwiches and their success: by hand. They bought antique furniture and used kitchen equipment, and built boxed planters for a garden to brighten up the patio (herbs and vegetables that would find their way into the menu). Before opening in December 2010, they brainstormed a simple menu in “about a week.” “I don’t know how we came up with it,” Anne admits. “We just knew we wanted to do everything in-house.”
“The whole idea was the bread,” says Bill, who’d been experimenting with a recipe from Jim Lahey’s no-knead book My Bread. They developed a few sandwiches from the resulting recipe, and committed to only ever using loaves made the same day. That mantra permeated the menu. Fresh bread sliced for every sandwich, bacon cooked to order so it’s still warm in your salad. The food takes longer to reach your mouth, but your mouth is so much happier as a result.
Fiore’s philosophy, and its overall look and pace, came from a family trip to Italy in 2003. (The name takes inspiration from Campo di Fiore, a huge outdoor market in Rome.) “When my friend in Italy would make bruschetta,” Bill says, “she would cut the tomato in her hand with a paring knife, and the juices would drip into the bowl. She would make it to order.”
The menu’s stars are the roast chicken sandwich (a wedding of moist breast meat, walnut-basil pesto and burrata), mini “piccolo” sandwiches on home-baked baguettes, a spicy udon noodle salad and Anne’s ample, crumbling cookies.
One of Fiore’s signature items is the short rib sandwich, which cushions slow-braised Angus choice short rib, chipotle mayonnaise and an Asian coleslaw popping with cilantro in Bill’s rustic loaf. That paramount bread, which transforms a ridiculously simple recipe through the use of sprinkled cornmeal and pot-generated moisture, is like a savory cake — dense and spectacularly soft — sopping up all the juices for utter integration.
It took two years for Fiore to get busy, but now the perpetual lines reveal its hold on the stomachs of South Pasadena. In December the couple self-published a cookbook filled with recipes, stories and vibrant photos.
Sure, Fiore could be more efficient, pre-bagging bread slices or pre-cooking the bacon — but the food wouldn’t taste as great. They could double their menu, but they know the less popular items would suffer in quality.
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“We’re not interested in that,” Bill says. “Obviously we need to live, but we’re not motivated by money, really." Adds Anne: "And we’re picky eaters, too."
Fiore Market Cafe, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena; (626) 441-2280; fioremarketcafe.com