Last weekend marked the beginning of summer, that glorious season of peaches and apricots, cherries and watermelon, and peppers and tomatoes in every color of the spectrum. At Bellanico, a year-old Italian restaurant in Oakland's bucolic Glenview district, seasonal foods are treated with the respect they deserve. The menu changes to reflect what's good and fresh in the farmers' markets. Local, organic, and sustainable is the presiding mantra. And if owners Chris Shepherd and Elizabeth Frumusa want to deploy these garden-fresh ingredients in refreshingly inventive concepts and combinations, who's to stop them?
The restaurant is located on laid-back Park Boulevard. The small dining room's Tuscan orange walls are decorated with photographs of the old country, and there's a bar ideal for single dining or a glass of wine. Comfy backlit benches line one wall, the ubiquitous open kitchen offers glimpses of the staff at work, and the neighborhood clientele can raise a din when the place is at its busiest.
The meal begins with cicchetti, the Venetian version of tapas, ideally eaten at the bar with a glass of wine and a bunch of friends. Some of Bellanico's small plates were on the ponderous side, for instance the fried green olives (not quite snarky and juicy enough to stand up to the breading) and the rice croquettes (tough-textured and heavy with a center of gooey cheese). But the equally robust mondeghili, a big pork-prosciutto meatball draped in a minty-green herb sauce, was a juicy, lusty treat, and the country-style pork terrine was beautifully accented with a lively little relish of fennel and Meyer lemon. Lighter fare included cherries filled with a tasty cheese-asparagus purée and filets of smoked tuna stuffed into endive leaves, a lush, bittersweet treat.
One of the better starters available on today's open market is Bellanico's dolce gorgonzola panna cotta. It's as feather-light and silky smooth as any really great after-dinner panna cotta, but the jazzy presence of sweet gorgonzola gave the dish a creamy intensity that raised it to the ethereal. It's served with half a dozen spears of al dente asparagus, a green and crunchy accent to the satiny cooked cream. Another antipasti, broccoli rabe soup, was even greener — a positively verdant emerald green — but although it was nearly as lush as the panna cotta, it encapsulated rapini's bitter, pungent flavors so successfully that a little bit of it went a long way. But we couldn't get enough of the casareccia with milk-braised goat. This twisty and tubular Sicilian pasta interacted beautifully with the tender shards of mildly gamy Bolinas goat meat, strands of roasted onion, a bracing bouquet of dandelion greens and just enough lightly nutty grana padano grating cheese to pull it all together.
Our favorite entrée was the grilled pork chop, a juicy, slightly chewy medium-rare meal in itself some two inches thick. Its smoky taste was ideally complemented by the bright flavors of braised cherries, pickled rhubarb, and grilled onions, but the doughy, ponderous cicercia bean cake alongside detracted from the whole. The wild nettle risotto, a big platter of green and soupy rice, tasted mostly of Fontina cheese and pine nuts, although chunks of asparagus and baby artichoke surfaced here and there. The roasted black cod, meanwhile, was moist and tender if robustly fishy in flavor, with a pleasantly briny skin and sweet, earthy fava beans for contrast. Tough little pea tendrils and tender couscous-like pellets of fregola pasta accompanied this satisfying if unexciting dish.
There are two terrific desserts on the menu. The house cheesecake is made from Laura Chenel chèvre and is entirely unlike the dense white brick we've become accustomed to; it's light and fluffy, not too sweet, with a wonderfully tart and puckery aftertaste. Plump little strawberries and a coulis of sweet-sour grape-must syrup share the platter, but the dessert's genius accent is the crunchy pine nut brittle dust. Equally irresistible is the chocolate pudding cake, an exponentially creamy confection that gets its moist texture from pureed medjool dates. It arrived at the table warm and fragrant with a central volcano of soufflé-like endorphic ooze, and that melting scoop of vanilla gelato didn't hurt things a bit. We had high hopes for the bomboloni, the deep-fried Florentine dough balls, but they were just perfectly adequate doughnut holes with a slightly weird sage-vanilla dipping sauce.
Given the restaurant's sensibilities, it's no surprise there are plenty of vegetarian options on the menu. Small plates include the fried green olives, rice croquettes, and stuffed cherries. Among the antipasti are two tempting salads (one featuring endive, cherries, hazelnuts, and Sausalito watercress, the other olives, apricots, dandelion greens, and wheatberries), as well as the broccoli rabe soup and the gorgonzola panna cotta with asparagus. Besides the wild nettle risotto there are two meatless pasta dishes (Swiss chard malfatti with sage and brown butter and ravioli stuffed with artichokes, sweet peas, and ricotta). Sides of grilled chard stems, fregola pasta with fennel, and escarole with garlic and potatoes are available as well.
The restaurant offers three sets of red and white wine flights as well as an impressive selection of seldom-encountered, sustainable, or otherwise notable sipping options (primarily Italian), most in the $20 to $50 range. Thirty are available by the glass. Service was friendly and knowledgeable, and although the place can get pretty packed any night of the week, you can call and put your name on the waiting list before you leave the house. All in all, this is a tasty place to celebrate the seasons.
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