A Cafe Worth Savoring 

Oliveto's renovated downstairs space offers hearty fare that expands the definition of "cafe."

For the past couple of decades Oliveto has been the East Bay's premier destination for top-shelf Italian cuisine, serving up black cod with artichokes, tagliatelle with braised pigeon, and other rustic yet inventive examples of Old World cookery out of a chic Rockridge location. The restaurant has operated a casual cafe in its downstairs bar space for the past several years as well, and a few months ago it underwent a major renovation, accenting the room's voluptuous curves with indirect lighting, mellow earth tones, a dazzling vintage espresso machine, and a cozy, nook-like ambience. The cafe's most important transformation, though, is in the food it serves, an impressive menu of nibbles, noshes, and full-fledged meals that expand the definition of "cafe."

The menu is set up to offer a sizable variety of options all throughout the day, from 7 or 8 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night, with breakfast items served until late morning; half a dozen special entrées served in the evening; and three or four pizzas, five or six pressed sandwiches, a selection of housemade salumi, several types of antipasti, and a few desserts offered from midday to closing. The menu changes here and there on a daily basis, but over the course of a couple of visits we found the quality of the food to be almost consistently praiseworthy.

Particularly the antipasti. Each of these tapas-sized plates reflects a respect for seasonal ingredients, a sense of balance, and a hearty, rustic approach to fresh produce. The broccoli, for instance, wasn't just perfectly verdant and tender, it was dressed with a spiky anchovy-cayenne dressing that accented the vegetable's pungent flavor in an entirely unexpected way. Ditto the roasted yellow carrots and Tokyo turnips, classic sweet 'n' earthy autumn vegetables jazzed up here with zesty Saracena olives from Sicily. Chunks of baby cauliflower and bell pepper were ribboned with pine nuts and plump, juicy sultana raisins to good effect, while a simple salad of sweet, tender corn kernels and slender, perfectly al dente French string beans let their flavors speak for themselves. Another salad showcased the rich, nutty flavor of the ceci (garbanzo) bean with bits of crunchy celery, pillowy croutons, and a spicy anchovy-infused vinaigrette. And a bisque of corn, eggplant, and fresh basil was warm, thick, creamy, and lush: the ideal autumnal comfort food.

The cafe's pizza and panini, while perfectly satisfying, didn't excite the tastebuds in the same way the antipasti did. The wood-fired pizzas are thin-crusted and tender, with a minimum of toppings; our choice, prosciutto with caraway-braised cabbage, made a tasty snack but didn't live up to its promising menu description. The porchetta-fennel sandwich turned out by the cafe's new cast-iron panini press was equally tempting on paper, but the delicate filling couldn't compete with the hot, crunchy, buttery sourdough that enclosed it. Another panini, the prosciutto-mozzarella-tomato, was a better, lustier choice; better still was the in-house bakery's three-cheese tart, a snack-sized circle of flaky pastry filled with broccoli, pine nuts, and a sweet, pungent fondue of mozzarella, goat cheese, and nutty pecorino.

An ever-changing selection of tavola calda (hot dishes) is offered in the evenings; three recurring favorites are the brandade, the gratinata, and the paillard of hen. Brandade, a concoction of dried cod, mashed potatoes, and milk, is almost always ponderous, salty, and overwhelmingly fishy, but Oliveto lightened the texture and smoothed out the flavor with the inspired addition of sweet, juicy Sungold tomatoes. The result was hearty but not heavy. Even better was the gratinata, the ideal one-dish cold-weather meal, a casserole of beet greens, cauliflower, and tender potato sprinkled with grated pecorino and breadcrumbs, gratinéed under the broiler and conveyed to the table hot, bubbling, and fragrant. At the last minute an egg was broken on top of the melting cheese, adding its own lush texture to this rich yet simple dish. And the paillard — a boneless cutlet pressed during the cooking process to retain its juices — was just about the tenderest, juiciest fillet of fowl I've ever experienced, with just a drizzle of blackberry salsa for garnish.

The baked goods and frozen sweets that make up the dessert menu range a bit in quality. The bread pudding was warm and luscious, but the orange caramel sauce that accompanied it was thin and largely flavorless. There was nothing particularly spicy (or pumpkin-y) about the pumpkin spice ice cream. But the fior di latte (aka vanilla) ice milk was light and creamy at the same time, and was served with a drizzle of deep-crimson quince syrup that added snap and texture to the dessert's delicate flavor. Especially pleasurable on this brisk evening, though, was the pan di ramerino, a chewy Sicilian sweet bun flavored with rosemary and ribboned with raisins. Similar in taste and texture to a Christmas panettone, the dessert got a special Yuletide boost through its accompanying scoop of pine needle ice cream, a positively Proustian evocation of sleigh bells and deep-green forests.

The cafe is exceptionally vegetarian-friendly. Breakfast includes housemade granola; a meatless pizza; freshly milled polenta with fruit, cream, or taleggio cheese; and an assortment of baked goods. The lunch/dinner menu usually features a veggie pizza and two vegetarian panini (sweet pepper-ricotta and squash-artichoke-eggplant are recent examples), as well as a couple savory flesh-free bakery items. Cannelloni stuffed with squash, eggplant, and ricotta and the beet green-cauliflower-potato gratinata are usually on the entrée menu, and any discerning vegetarian can make a satisfying meal out of the antipasti selection alone: cabbage-lentil minestra; roasted Forono beets with farro; fresh mozzarella di bufala; zucchini-eggplant-artichoke salad; fried Gypsy peppers in balsamic vinegar; young onions braised in white wine.

The cafe's wine list is brief — nine bottles, another dozen by the glass — but the primarily Italian vintages offer plenty of pairing options. The beer selection is equally eclectic, featuring four Belgian ales, a Tahitian lager, and Mendocino's Scrimshaw pilsner, while the full bar serves five grappas and fashions a delicious Hendricks negroni. Unique nonalcoholic options include Bundaberg's ginger beer, Abita Brewing's root beer, Navarro pinot noir grape juice, and coffee drinks from the cafe's beautifully restored 1961 Faema E61 espresso machine.

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