NAM TON - MediaNews
NAM TON - MediaNews
IN creating Incanto restaurant and wine bar, owner Mark Pastore painstakingly rendered his vision of fine Italian dining.

Florentine sheet music, inked onto parchment from the 16th century, hangs from the archways. Super-Tuscan vintages that cost $275 a bottle line the wooden racks of his climate-controlled cellar. Diners can feast on porchetta di testa, or pork head, with shaved radish and pecorino.

What Pastore does not offer: a single drop of San Pellegrino, Santa Lucia or any other bottled water, regardless of provenance.

When it opened in 2002, the San Francisco restaurant became the first in the country to consciously ban packaged water for conservation reasons.

Pastore said the decision sprang from his belief in gustatory authenticity that happens to go hand-in-hand with environmental stewardship.

"I just think it's the right thing to do," said Pastore. "I thought it was kind of foolish to put water in bottles and ship it around the world."

This spring, Chez Panisse in Berkeley will join the small cluster of Bay Area restaurants like Incanto, NoPa in San Francisco and Poggio in Sausalito that have completely traded in bottles for tap.

Shipping glass bottles of European spring water across the Atlantic to American restaurants pollutes the air and oceans, environmentalists say.


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And domestic water in plastic bottles, the kind most purchased by the average American, may pose an even greater environmental threat: landfills overflowing with material that will not degrade for a thousand years, barrels of oil wasted to create containers for something that most people in this country can get for free from a public fountain or the kitchen sink.

In short, bottled water is bad for the Earth, said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute based in Washington, D.C.

"People are not taking into consideration that they are consuming something that is a petroleum product, made with a nonrenewable resource," Franklin said.

So far, the bottle backlash hasn't hit other fine restaurants in the East or South Bay.

At Lark Creek in Walnut Creek, general manager Aundrea Wainscott said she leaves it up to the customer to decide whether to sip San Pellegrino or tipple from the tap.

"Bottom line is, when that person comes in and wants imported bottled water," Wainscott said, "we're going to provide it for them."

At Manresa in Los Gatos, managers of the two-star Michelin restaurant are struggling with how to replace the bottles of mineral water that create waste but nonetheless have become synonymous with both fine dining and health.

"We're trying to figure out how to phase it out," said general manager Michael Kean. "But the demand is there."

To your health

Imported bottled water burst onto the scene in earnest during the 1980s when socialites turned Perrier into the toast of the town. Sales of imported water increased from $76 million in 1984 to nearly $136 million in 1985, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp.

But the bulk of the water market is bubble-free still water. Once drunk out of necessity in places without access to clean water, flat bottled water soared in popularity in the 1990s as fitness magazines touted the importance of drinking six to eight glasses daily.

The craze for bottled water continues today, thanks to water's calorie-free status in a nation coping with ever-expanding waistlines.

In 2006, Americans chugged down an estimated 8.3 billion gallons of bottled water, the most by volume of any country in the world and 23 times as much as three decades before, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp.

The world drank nearly 45 billion gallons in 2005. Italy consumed the most bottled water per capita, more than 50 gallons a person compared to 26 gallons in the United States.

As America drinks up the hype, environmentalists are taking on the $11 billion American bottled water industry as its next cause.

A finite resource

During her yearly stream clean-ups, recycling advocate Pat Franklin invariably picks up bagfuls of plastic water bottles bobbing on the surfaces of creeks and rivers.

"They are an enormous litter problem, particularly in waterways," Franklin said, noting the irony. "We think we're doing everything we can to have clean drinking water and then we're buying these bottles, many of which end up in the water we're trying to protect."

Despite the fact that the state of California will pay out a nickel for each plastic bottle recycled, nearly 1 billion end up in landfills every year, according to a 2003 California Department of Conservation report.

Not only do bottles trash the landscape, packaging water eats up another valuable liquid: oil.

The Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. estimates that making plastic water bottles to quench America's thirst burns up 1.5 million barrels of crude a year.

Finer restaurants generally serve water bottled in glass, which takes fewer resources to produce, Franklin said. However glass is heavier and often imported long distances, which burns up gasoline.

"It takes enormous amounts of energy to get them there," Franklin said.

'An awkward moment'

Five years ago, Pastore, a former tech executive, plotted his dream of opening an Italian restaurant in earth-friendly San Francisco. He wanted to create a comfortable experience for his patrons — right down to their first glass of water.

"There's kind of an awkward moment when you're offered water in a restaurant," Pastore said. Waiters might ask, ever so judgmentally, if you want mineral water or the plain tap available to plebeians everywhere.

"It's kind of off-putting," Pastore said. "The moment you sit down, people are trying to sell you something. It's nice that we don't have to deal with that here."

He cobbled together a filtration and carbonation system from various manufacturers because a complete set-up did not exist on this side of the Atlantic at the time. When he called beverage equipment companies, they laughed at him.

"All of them thought I was crazy," Pastore said. "None of them could understand the concept."

Though Incanto's water works (and "head-to-tail" meals, which make use of an entire animal) won the restaurant a 2006 sustainability award from hospitality trade publication Sante, not selling bottled water costs the restaurant big bucks.

Pastore spent $6,000 on his water system. Every three or four months, he replaces the four filters, meaning he shells out at least $750 a year on filters alone.

"Water is a profit center for most restaurants," Pastore said, standing next to the chromed German beer tap that he installed to dispense the in-house flat and sparkling water. "For us, it's a cost center."

Maintaining easy profit remains one reason why other restaurants might ultimately keep bottled water on the menu.

Lark Creek customers drain 800 to 1,000 bottles of San Pellegrino a month, said Wainscott, the general manager. The restaurant charges $3.95 for a 750 milliliter bottle that costs $1.49 at Whole Foods, meaning a profit of roughly $2,000 to $2,500 a month.

Customers at Postino in Lafayette also love their eau, drinking 20 to 25 bottles a night.

"We sell a lot of Pellegrino," said general manager Marcus Hernandez.

Hernandez argues that serving imported bottled waters not only bring in dollars but plays a legitimate role in fine dining.

"The bubbles, the lime — it's a palate cleanser," Hernandez said. Sparkling water also presents a nice alternative to alcohol.

Beyond that, a bottle of bubbly — whether Gerolstein from Germany or Evian from the Alps — lends special cache to a meal.

"When people go out, it's to get things they usually don't get," Hernandez said.

Jardiniere in San Francisco — fabled for both its French-Cal cuisine and biodegradable straws — serves Badoit sparkling water from France and Panna still water from Tuscany.

"Water is part of that dining experience, and they want to offer that to their guests," said Tami von Isakovics, a Jardiniere spokeswoman.

L.A. l'eau

The real test of the bottle ban lies in cities like Los Angeles, notorious for its hideous municipal supply.

"You don't want to drink L.A. tap," said Caroline Styne, owner of Hollywood hot spots Lucques and A.O.C., both known for their environmental bent.

Workers dump organic remains into a compost heap to be picked up by the city. Fish and produce come from sustainable sources whenever possible.

The water comes in two flavors: Volvic from Auvergne, France, or the ubiquitous San Pellegrino from the Lombardy region of Italy.

The restaurant also offers fil tered water from the tap when customers sit down. Even with that extra precaution and unbeatable price (free), health and status-obsessed L.A. eaters may never part with their Pellegrino, Styne said.

Banning the bottle?

"We haven't even considered it," Styne said. "But it doesn't sound like a bad idea."

Shirley Dang can be reached at (925) 977-8418.

United States for 2006

-Bottled water consumption: 8.3 billion gallons

-Nonsparkling: 7.8 billion gallons

-Domestic sparkling: 200 million gallons

-Imported: 185 million gallons

-Money spent in U.S. on bottled water: $11 billion
Source: Beverage Marketing Corp. 2006

The cost of water (per pint)

-Penta purified still water: $1.42

-San Pellegrino sparkling: 94.2 cents

-Fiji still water: 56.5 cents

-Whole Foods 365 brand sparkling: 46.8 cents

-Crystal Geyser sparkling: 37.5 cents
Source: MediaNews price comparison at Whole Foods Market, Walnut Creek.