ASK ANYBODY in France or Italy about carryout food and you'll receive a blank stare. Nobody buys such things. Horrors.
Then look into Flo Prestige, three shops in Paris and one in Barcelona, open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to midnight, selling venison in sauce veneur, chicken fricassee with morels, scallops with saffron sauce, all in plastic boxes to microwave at home. Is it something new that people haven't heard about yet? Hardly. These boxed foods -- "La Restauration a Domicile" -- have been going strong for more than 10 years.
Flo Prestige has it down to a science by now. A central kitchen prepares the foods, which are meant to be kept in the stores for up to three days, though a clerk said they sell out in one day. The menus change about twice a month and include dozens of dishes at a time, from glazed cold first courses to stews, seafoods, game, rice and vegetables and desserts. Main dishes cost from $4 to $9. They can be bought cold or heated in a microwave at the store and packed with a knife, fork and napkin for immediate consumption. Marveled one young trainee behind the counter of the Marche' St. Honore' branch, "We sell cooked pastas! We have to cook them for the people!" They also sell complete meals, with pa te's and cheeses and wines. The foods are garnished with a spinach leaf or julienned carrot or a butter curl, and the vegetables to accompany them can include tiny green beans, chestnut pure'e, freshly made noodles.
These are restaurant-quality foods. Parisian-restaurant-quality foods. The special of the day might be mousseline de brochette en boudin sauce ame'ricaine. It will be in a plastic box that can be reheated in microwave or a bain-marie. And the box will be in a carton with Flo Prestige's logo. The fish will taste fresh and moist and perfectly cooked; the duck in green peppercorn sauce will have juicy meat, a full gamy flavor and a suavely constructed sauce. Hot dishes will be packed in one plastic shopping bag, cold things in another. The portion will be large -- enough to serve two if there are plenty of accompaniments. And if someone decides in the middle of the afternoon to give a dinner party for 60 people that night, Flo Prestige can deliver its wherewithal within a few hours.
Yet that's not even Paris' most elegant or ambitious carryout. At least three others are so grand as to be worldwide legends.
If you want to know how exquisitely detailed food can look, browse along the windows of LeNotre, Paris' most famous catering conglomerate, which also runs a professional cooking school and a restaurant, as well as the catering service and chain of shops. The ice cream cakes include sherbet fruits in nougat jewel boxes. The pastries show the same precision, whether one-bite or wedding size. The terrines and pa te's alone number in the dozens, and they are displayed on the cold buffet with hams and sausages, sandwiches trimmed of their crusts, shrimp salad with raspberries. The pa te's are sliced and glazed to make a flashy multicolored show -- vegetable pa te' in dark green farce, lotte terrine coated with red aspic, leek pa te' with a nubbin of beige foie gras. Each is accompanied by its own sauce. Pink, green and yellow flowers bloom in this display designated, "The Garden of LeNotre."
Pasta salad is raised to new heights with smoked salmon and mushrooms in a vinaigrette. Daily specials for two weeks are listed on a board. And the breads -- tall brioches, sugared kugelhofs, deeply browned crusty baguettes -- look as if they would be famous even if you'd never heard of LeNotre. (Of course there are those who would make a meal of LeNotre's chocolates, but usually people buy other things at least for a show of mature restraint.)
Even more famous is Fauchon, whose catering-to-go section is easily as spectacular to the eye as LeNotre's. (It is not, however, nearly so spectacular to the tongue.) Its show windows cover nearly half the Place de la Madeleine, with produce windows boasting tiny green and white asparagus as well as large white asparagus and lettuces I have never before encountered. There are tropical fruits in baskets and even sugar cane. The sausage-and-fowl window has tiny raw stuffed quail and pigeons, whole glazed ducks topped with garnishes that are keys to their flavoring: pineapple, black olives, green olives, peaches, prunes, kiwis andcherries.
There are at least two kinds of everything, even things that you thought came in only one kind. Two kinds of snails. Quenelles of salmon as well as pike. Foie gras alone comes in 12 different varieties.
The seafood window has brochettes of scallops with lime and peppers to cook at home, and stuffed crabs and little molds filled with salmon mousse. Fillets of sole have two sauces under their glaze. And so international is this selection of salads that it includes tabouleh, biryani rice, waldorf salad and "crevettes au ketchup." Quiches are only the beginning of the savory tarts. There might be a merlan mousse tart or a seafood tourte. That merely leads up to the main dishes: cassoulet, seafood sausage, blanquette de veau, saute' d'agneau, osso buco, coq au vin, moussaka, several kinds of duck. You can buy them in plastic boxes or in ceramic casseroles for reheating and serving. Everything will be garnished, with toast points or tomato concasse or lemon peel.
Alas, in my experience this all looks much better than it tastes. Salty pa te's, doughy puff pastry, heavy fishmousses plague the palate.
I'd solve that problem by window-shopping at Fauchon and actually buying my dinner across the street at Hediard. It is smaller, with a produce shop so trendy it smells of passion fruit and a little catering-to- go boutique next door.
Some of Hediard's products look daunting. Would a Parisian really buy lasagna in a jar? Actually, a lot of the food looks dreadful. On a single morning, the sole with onions in cream was coated with a sauce thick and cracking, and the duck with green peppercorns looked dried out. The tiny pizzas looked like factory cooking. Oh, but did they ever taste lovely! Light flaky pastry with aromatic topping. And Vietnamese spring rolls were fragile in texture, zippy in taste. A pa te' of veal brains was a delicate and luscious construction, a pa te' en crou te delicious from the crust right through.
Paris is full of shops that sell cooked foods to take home, in all styles and price ranges. Every neighborhood has a North African shop to buy couscous and honeyed pastries, or a food boutique with pa te's of seafood and liver and vegetables or fish wrapped in lettuce or baked with grapes. Dalloyau on the Faubourg St. Honore' presents a world tour of blinis, artichoke bottoms topped with smoked salmon and glazed, corn fritters and tabouleh. Chedeville is a homey sort of butcher shop, and it also sells lasagna, lamb with beans, pork chops with sauerkraut as well as a whole array of cooked vegetables. Cheese shops might have meat pies that happen to be the owner's specialty. Even a bar might have a savory tart that people buy by the piece.
But of course nobody in Paris would dream of buying such things rather than cooking them at home from scratch. Just ask around.
I F PARISIANS don't admit they buy carryout food, the Milanese don't seem to even recognize the term. Bread and prosciutto are all they will admit to buying. But somebody must buy all those pizzas and turnovers and salads and chickens that perfume the streets from the rotisseries.
Milan's main streets are punctuated with salami shops that sell ravioli with artichokes, pinwheels of filled pastas, cooked vegetables, salads and pickles and olives and roasted birds. Somebody is depleting the stock of Gastronomia's cold poached salmon slices, seafood in aspic, russian salad and prefried french fries. Tiny rosticcerie like La Sirena on Corso Buenos Aires have an entire counter devoted to roasted birds of all sizes cooked on a rotisserie over charcoal, as well as rolled veal roasts, suckling pig and stuffed breast of veal. Another counter has fried vegetables: fennel slices, zucchini and eggplants. There are casseroles of cauliflower with cheese, and polenta, not to mention fish marinated in oil and herbs and the inevitable pizzas. These are the makings of a home-style meal.
The most fashionable streets, with shops such as Ferragamo and Gucci, have food shops as glamorous as any of the designer-clothing shops. Salumaio shows a sturgeon six feet long on ice in the window, and inside a mountain of mustard fruits. So dense with food is this store that it takes the bustling staff a full hour to restock the display cases after lunch. The ravioli come tiny and large, the sea creatures range from eels to anchovies. From the fryer come meatballs and rice balls, flat rice cakes, potato croquettes and other vegetables. You can buy a fried square of polenta or an entire loaf. And the whole boiled vegetables include fennel, artichokes and sweet-sour onions.
And there is Peck's, its world-famous specialty stores spread over several downtown streets. These shops are devoted to cheeses, roasted meats, fresh meats -- the whole gamut of prepared foods and a cafeteria-restaurant.
There you can buy arancini di riso -- fried rice and cheese balls the size and shape of oranges that ooze cheese when you cut through their crust. And who, if not the Italians, took the salad to its furthest reaches: mozzarella with baby artichokes and walnuts, fat yellow grains of rice brightly studded with seafoods and vegetables, vitello tonnato -- that brilliant combination of cold roast veal with mellow, saline tuna sauce the texture of mayonnaise? Things come in miniature -- quail eggs in mayonnaise, tiny shrimp in olive oil -- and giant -- whole pa te's with the store's logo engraved in the glaze, a bag filled with large white truffles, a tray of giant porcini, olives two inches long.
You can buy the whole Italian pasta repertoire, it seems, from six kinds of ravioli -- including pumpkin -- to puffy golden gnocchi to risotto with seafood and three kinds of peppers. Besides four kinds of roast chickens there are rabbit in a dark sauce and meatballs with sliced artichokes and pheasant stuffed with pistachios and eggs. If you want to take more of a role in your dinner, you can buy raw quail wrapped in bacon, with sausage wings attached by toothpicks, to roast at home.
While the rice is typically precooked in Italian carryout shops, the pasta is meant to be cooked at home, except for the lasagna and sometimes ravioli in sauce. As for pasta salads, they have made only the most modest inroads. I saw only two in all the shops I visited.
The Italians, one cannot forget, respect tradition in food. Al dente. Hot. That is what pasta should be. No matter how casual the occasion, standards are standards: Even the picnic in Italy is more or less a restaurant carried outdoors. Tables, tablecloths, real silverware. Meals served in a proper succession of courses. Italy is a long way from cold pasta primavera on a paper plate.