Francesca Fresh loads a lot of homemade things into a diminutive deli in high-demand Ryan Ranch.

My Place or Yours: Tasty staple combos (like this egg salad sandwich with homemade Tuscan tomato soup) make Francesca a magnetic lunch spot.

In the foodstuff-starved Ryan Ranch, a little deli market with fresh sandwiches, homemade soups and salads, breakfast burritos, steel-cut oatmeal and yogurt is a big addition.

The bubbly longtime caterer behind the place, Francesca Randazzo, is no stranger to the restaurant business. Her father, Matteo, helmed the family’s fish market and restaurant Colombo’s in the space that is now the Old Fisherman’s Grotto on Fisherman’s Wharf.

From the tender age of 8, Randazzo was a regular fixture at the restaurant: “I wanted to follow my dad [to the restaurant] and he put me to work!”

Randazzo’s father taught her the ropes of running the business in and out of the kitchen. She learned to make all the family sauces including spaghetti and cioppino, and some days she pounded and cut squid.

“I can fillet a whole fish and butcher any meat,” she declares proudly.

When she was 20, Randazzo decided to branch out on her own. In 1975, she started her own catering company and continued for 30 years.

The seed for a bricks-and-mortar venue was only planted in 2003, when Randazzo was selling sandwiches and salads at Ryan Ranch out of a basket. “I knew the business was there and there wasn’t much [to choose from] up there.”

However, it wasn’t until 2008 that Randazzo finally found the current space in Laguna Seca Office Park. Several more months passed before she opened Francesca Fresh Eats and Sweets in July.

Recognizing that people want fresh food fast, Randazzo prepares all her menu items from scratch daily. Whatever doesn’t sell at the end of the day is donated to women’s shelters and charities.

When I step into the airy space just off York Road on Highway 68, I’m greeted by a cheery “hello” and an invitation to try their soup of the day. I, for one, cannot resist butternut squash soup. The soup already on my radar, I scan the lineup at the counter for more options.

The basic menu lists about eight different sandwiches and eight salads. Daily rotating hot lunches range from barbecued pork and rice cakes ($7.95) to pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and peas ($6.95).

An antipasto bar offers a choice of five to nine items (choose four for $7.95). That day, I spy tri-tip and onion pasta salad, shredded red cabbage and tomatoes, and caprese towers of tomato slices, mozzarella and fresh basil. A fan of farmers markets, Randazzo makes weekly visits to the local al fresco affairs at Monterey Peninsula College and downtown Salinas, where she picks out in-season produce to be transformed into salad and pasta combos.

Although the deli is obviously set up for the to-go crowd (salads in clamshell containers, soups in Styrofoam cups, and plastic tableware), I sit down to enjoy my meal. Oil-painted sunflowers and Tuscany-esque rolling hills hung on the walls hint at a European café, and brightly colored wooden chairs complete the picture.

I start with the squash soup ($3.95/cup). Sweet and silky and topped with lashings of cream, spoonfuls slide down my throat pleasantly. While the thought is appreciated, the accompanying bread slathered with honey butter is a little too hard and chewy.

The grilled chicken sandwich (all sandwiches are $6.95) is loaded with tasty chunks of breast and layered with Muenster cheese, mayonnaise, tomatoes and crisp green lettuce. The chicken is grilled in-house daily, says Randazzo, as is the turkey and the rib eye for the herb-crusted roast beef sandwich (which comes with a delish horseradish-infused aioli, by the way). All this good stuff is sandwiched between cushiony-soft, sesame-sprinkled bread from Seaside’s Palermo Bakery.

I order Francesca’s Own salad (all salads are $7.95), Randazzo’s version of a Waldorf and a customer favorite. Romaine lettuce, chicken, grapes, candied walnuts, apples, celery and gorgonzola are served with a generous tub of blue cheese dressing. Unfortunately, I don’t get to try it – my order gets mixed up.

Instead, I open my clamshell container to the Cobb salad: a medley of grilled chicken cubes, crumbled egg, gorgonzola, and disappointingly, what looks like bacon bits out of a bottle instead of the crisp bacon the menu promised. That said, the salad is satisfying, thanks to the flavorful buttermilk dressing, packed with garlicky goodness and the right bite of black pepper.

The salad dressings, whether the Caesar or the Greek herb, are all made by hand using fresh ingredients and herbs from Randazzo’s garden just outside the deli, plus a “secret” ingredient – Himalayan sea salt. Randazzo swears by it, explaining, “Something a little different [like this sea salt] makes a huge different in taste.”

Even though Randazzo knows her penchant for unusual and fresh ingredients can kick up costs, she wants her food to be of “high quality but with prices that are very reasonable and with nice portions too.”

Good food, great prices. Now that’s fresh.

FRANCESCA FRESH EATS AND SWEETS 9621 Citation Court, Ryan Ranch, Monterey. • 7am-4pm Monday to Friday. • 656-0500.

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