Agrodolce is the most picturesque Italian restaurant that the East Bay has to offer — assuming that the portrait of an ideal Italian family meal in your mind's eye includes good-natured bickering and garlicky olive oil ladled out of a giant plastic bin.
Mine does, apparently. That's the likely explanation for how much I enjoyed Agrodolce, an imperfect, but infinitely lovable Sicilian restaurant that has been open since September in the old Cafe Gratitude spot in North Berkeley. It's just the second restaurant from the D'Alo family, which runs Trattoria La Siciliana — an Elmwood mainstay for the past twenty years.
Now in her seventies, Rosa, the family matriarch, is an active presence at Agrodolce, whether she's chatting up customers at the bar or poking her head into the kitchen to make sure everything is being done just so. But Agrodolce is very much her son Angelo's baby, stemming from his long-held desire to open a restaurant with a strictly Sicilian menu. Trattoria La Siciliana also serves Sicilian dishes, but Agrodolce has more of a laser focus on the region and — to be more specific — on the dishes native to the city of Palermo, where Rosa grew up.
Sicilian cooking is the product of the island's history of foreign occupation, to which it owes its Arab, Spanish, and French influences; as well as its longstanding poverty, which helped shape a thrifty cuisine built around humble local ingredients: fresh vegetables such as eggplants and tomatoes, salted fish, and breadcrumbs toasted in such a way that they taste like cheese, for the times when actual cheese was too expensive a luxury. As Angelo D'Alo put it, "We kind of live off the land."
The prominent use of Moorish/Arabic ingredients — think saffron, raisins, and assorted citrus — is probably the most obvious thing that sets the food apart from the rest of Italian cooking. Perhaps the best example of this, at both Trattoria La Siciliana and Agrodolce, is the bucatini chi finucchiede, a pasta dish loaded with sardines, anchovies, currants, saffron, and toasted breadcrumbs.
The other hallmark of Sicilian cuisine is its use of sour elements such as vinegar and lemons — after all, agrodolce means "sweet and sour." The most classic example would be caponata, the Sicilian chilled eggplant dish. But I was more intrigued by the polipo al'insalata, a Sicilian octopus salad that featured bite-size segments of al dente octopus, sliced celery, new potatoes, and, one of D'Alo's favorite ingredients, the Sicilian lemon, which is known for being sweeter and more mellow than the common lemon. The use of lemons is not unusual in Italian cooking, but rarely will you see them deployed as aggressively as they were here. The lemon was cut into large chunks, with the rind attached, so that every few bites I would hit on another acid bomb that somehow caught me by surprise every time. It made for an intense salad — tasty, but not for the faint of heart.
Like its sister restaurant, Agrodolce isn't the kind of place that's known for its subtlety. After all, Rosa D'Alo's calling card is that olio della mamma, which the restaurant serves by the ladleful — as much as you can eat in exchange for the $1-per-diner bread charge. It bears a passing similarity to the olive-oil dips at other Italian restaurants, but with the flavor turned up to eleven. I've been known to make a sport of seeing how much I can sop up before my bread turns to mush — the goal being to maximize the amount of garlicky goodness I can convey into my mouth at once, short of doing a straight shot.
Another dish that isn't for the timid of palate is Agrodolce's Sicilian-style porchetta — a version heavy on the salt and rosemary, as opposed to the fennel seeds that dominate the better-known Roman style. I wished the thin slices of pork were a little bit more tender, and you have to love salt to love the dish. The accompanying pan gravy, on the other hand? It was so wonderfully savory, I considered getting an extra order to-go just so I could serve the jus with my Thanksgiving turkey and mashed potatoes.
If you are going to order just one thing at Agrodolce, though, let it be the sfincione, a kind of pizza that three-wheeled street carts sell by the foot in Palermo. The sfincione are thick and focaccia-like, and topped with a hard sheep's milk cheese called caciocavallo. But the best parts were the crisp, olive oil-soaked bottom of the crust and the intensely flavorful, anchovy-infused tomato sauce. Skip the rest of the menu if you like: A couple slices of sfincione and a glass of red wine — say, an easy-drinking Sangiovese — would make for an exceedingly pleasant dinner for one all on their own.
Porchetta notwithstanding, Agrodolce's menu focuses less on meat and more on seafood and vegetables. Both feature prominently in the frittura misto appetizer, which distinguished itself from similar batter-fried seafood-and-vegetable medleys not by having the crunchiest batter or the tastiest dipping sauce, but simply in terms of the quality of the ingredients: some of the sweetest shrimp and juiciest artichoke hearts I've eaten in recent memory. And the squid ink-stained risotto nero vulcano is meant to appeal to diners who love the briny flavors of the sea, with fresh Monterey sea urchin and grated battarga (cured tuna roe) added for extra oomph at the very end.
I enjoyed the risotto but found it a bit too one-note to want to eat a giant plate of it by myself. That was also true of the intensely lemony octopus salad, and, to a lesser extent, of Agrodolce's pasta dishes, which included a surprisingly light lamb ragu pappardelle and mushroom ravioli made with fresh porcinis and served in a rich cream sauce. In general, you'll do better if you come with a group and order family-style, allowing you to cover a wider spectrum of flavors — a salad, a couple of pasta dishes, a big plate of roast pork or fish, and perhaps a side order of Sicilian meatballs, each one as large as billiard ball, for good measure. For dessert, the gelato al'limone — lemon gelato served inside a hollowed-out Sicilian lemon, like what beachside vendors sell in Sicily — is just the thing for a table of overstuffed diners to share at the end of the meal.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that family-style dining would be the way to go at a traditional Italian restaurant. Agrodolce has been open for just six weeks, and yet, to dine here is to step into the past — or, more precisely, to immerse yourself in the kind of old-school ambience that is becoming a rarity in the Bay Area. It is the kind of place where the owner might clap you on the shoulder and call you, "boss man," and then, without missing a beat, turn to bicker with his staff about an order that got screwed up. When the restaurant is busy — which is to say, every night I visited — the service veers just this side of chaotic, and a meal can take a good long while, in part because the servers are adding up each handwritten tab on a handheld calculator. (That the restaurant even accepts credit cards feels like a minor miracle. Trattoria La Siciliana was cash-only until just a few years ago.)
Part of Agrodolce's charm has to do with the coziness of the space, with its dim lighting and its well-worn brick interior. D'Alo said he didn't much care for the food the one time, years ago, that he ate at Cafe Gratitude, but he fell in love with everything about the building — with the brick archways, the fireplace, and the lack of windows, which makes it feel like you're inside a cave.
Mostly, though, there is warmth and sincerity to the place that helps smooth over any rough edges. That and Rosa's olive oil, of course.