Now that winter in the Bay Area is acting the way it's supposed to, with all that blighted sunshine supplanted with the occasional rainstorm and plummeting thermometer, the seasonal demand for comfort food is upon us. Now's the time to feast on warm and cozy home cooking that soothes body and spirit alike: hearty stews fragrant with spices and vegetables; mashed potatoes ribboned with butter and cream; mac and cheese and chicken noodle soup and meatloaf sandwiches and bread pudding smothered in bourbon-laced caramel sauce ... mmmm. And perhaps most salubrious of all, pasta fresh from the colander, polenta as soft and warm as a blanket, the toasty textures and lusty flavors that make Italian food the ideal antidote to the damp chill of midwinter.
Welcome to Acquacotta, a fine place to come in from the cold and feast on a variety of elegantly simple Italian comfort fare. Chef and owner John Couacaud serves rustic dishes — roasted fowl, grilled meats, wine-based stews — with a sense of balance and culinary dexterity that often raises them from the merely satisfying to the thoroughly gratifying. The minimal menu changes frequently to best reflect the whims of the seasons, but Couacaud (an Oliveto graduate) never strays too far from the savory and fulfilling.
The restaurant, which opened last April, is located in Alameda's less-than-trendy Webster neighborhood across the street from a barbershop, a tattoo parlor, and a car dealership. The venue itself has a charming Old West clapboard sort of frontage to it, but inside, the ambience is pure California-Tuscany: a vase of bare branches accentuates the minimalist décor, black-and-white photomontages adorn moss-mustard-burnt sienna walls, and a worn-wood metallic-topped bar fronts colorful bottles of liqueurs and cordials from the old country. When the smallish dining area is crowded, quiet conversation becomes a challenge, but in the later evening hours the place assumes a cozy-retreat atmo ideal for noshing and sipping.
Cappasante fritti, fried scallops, is a good place to start. Dusted with breadcrumbs and served hot and crunchy from the deep fryer, they retained their sweet flavor and juicy texture and were especially good dipped in a snarky lime-edged mayonnaise with orange zest. Arancini, the deep-fried Sicilian risotto balls, weren't as successful; the chewy, undercooked rice barely held together by a minimum of melted mozzarella. But the orecchiette con rapini was a wonderfully light yet satisfying dish, the buttery "little ear"-shaped pasta presented in a warm, fragrant broth with smoky shards of pancetta; silky, pungent broccoli rabe; and a topping of creamy ricotta adding lots of lusty flavor.
The entrées are where the kitchen really comes into its own. Petrale sole, a notoriously easy fish to screw up, is served here crunchy on the outside, delicately flaky and moist on the inside, while its accompaniments — roasted sweet peppers and a bed of tender, luscious cannellini beans — complemented things beautifully. Sausage, polenta, and tomato sauce sounds like a pretty heavy dish to tuck into just before bedtime, but despite the rich, chunky sauce; the lush, warm polenta; and the thick ring of fennel-laced salsiccia that bursts with juicy flavor when you cut into it, it wasn't. (The chunks of mozzarella may've been overkill, however.) The restaurant's crowning triumph, though, is its rendition of stracotto, the classic Tuscan pot roast. The beef is braised for several hours in Chianti, and when it emerges from the oven it's so tender it crumbles at the touch of a fork. Acquacotta serves its stracotto thickly sliced with a beautifully balanced reduction sauce tasting of root vegetables, herbs, and robust red wine; roasted carrots and potatoes whimsically carved into mushroom shapes are perfect for dunking.
Surprisingly enough, the desserts didn't match the high standards of the entrées. The panna cotta was densely textured and overly substantial, a far cry from the feathery, lusciously lacteal sweet dream we know and love. The flourless chocolate cake was even heavier, a bland brown brick with no discernible endorphins. And the equally unmemorable Meyer lemon tart had an eggy consistency, not enough bite, and a chewy, flavorless crust.
The thoughtful, reasonably priced 36-item wine list is entirely Italian in nature and runs the gamut from La Vis's 2006 Lagrein ($22) to Prunotto's 2003 Barbaresco ($80), but most bottles are in the $30 to $50 range. (Selvapiana's earthy, luscious Chianti Rufina is especially nice with the pot roast.) Eleven are available by the glass. The bar also serves up an array of Italian aperitifs, dessert wines, brandies, and grappas as well as Moretti on tap and everything you need for a classic cocktail. Two house concoctions are especially worth ordering: Il Sogno de Sergio Leone (and how could you resist ordering a drink with a name like that?), a predictably masculine yet silky-smooth funnel of bourbon with an afterbite of fresh lemon and Luxardo bitters, and the Limone Salto Mortale, a tart, sweet, creamy, refreshing mixup of vodka, Nardini bitters, housemade limoncello, and a crown of frothy egg white. The nonalcoholic Vignette Wine Country Pinot Noir Soda, on the other hand, tastes, to paraphrase Linus Van Pelt, like a glass of water with a red crayon dipped in it.
Vegetarians can put together a fairly satisfying meal at Acquacotta. Among the perennial appetizers are the cheese-stuffed risotto balls, a mixed olive platter, and two or three different salads. Second-course options usually include the house specialty, a Tuscan vegetable soup, and (perhaps) a meat-free pasta dish. You can also opt for a selection of vegetable side dishes, which on a given night might include roasted butternut squash, caramelized cauliflower, sautéed spinach or chard, or soft polenta. Even without the pot roast it sounds like the makings for a memorable, soul-stirring meal any time of year, rain or shine.
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