Exterior shot: me, in an obvious state of bliss, as I realize that Fellini — a vegetarian and vegan-friendly Italian eatery that sits on an unassuming stretch of University Avenue — has its very own parking lot. Both the lot and the location, across the street from Andronico's, make this a convenient destination, though not a terribly enticing one.
Cut to: interior shot, where ho-hum college town quickly gives way to brash Italian auteur. Red and black is the in-your-face color scheme at Fellini, and bold design elements — red-painted chairs, sleek tables, Oriental rugs, hammered-bronze bar — fight for attention with floor-to-ceiling old-school Italian movie posters.
The restaurant is owned by singer-songwriter Jeff Davis, who found success some twenty years ago in the Los Angeles band the Balancing Act and is now lead vocalist for Bay Area —based L'Avventura (yes, you are sensing a theme). In 2002, the Berkeley resident was busily hawking espresso from a cart at a Marin County farmers' market when he noticed that the burger-and-taco takeout window at the Mexican eatery Montero's was closing. He leapt at the opportunity and opened Fellini Coffeebar, which continues to specialize in organic, fair-trade coffee and espresso drinks and Semifreddi's pastries. Regulars began to rave about the excellent coffee drinks made with beans from Kavanaugh coffee, service with a smile, outdoor patio, and Peoples' vegan donuts on offer there, setting the stage for expansion. But Davis resisted the allure of full-service restaurant ownership — until he had no choice. About a year and a half after opening the coffee bar, Montero's faced new ownership. With only a handshake sublease for the bar, Davis had either to lose his business or take over the entire space.
"I wasn't one of those people who particularly had a dream to have a restaurant. I opened it out of necessity — and then I fell in love with it," he recalls of Fellini Restaurant's beginnings. Today, he couldn't be more effusive about his leap of faith. "Fellini is about music, community, and diversity. We call the place 'Fellini' as a metaphor for the people of Berkeley — who could be the cast of a Fellini film."
The red-meat-free menu is what Davis likes to call "comfort Italian," with a focus on vegetarian and vegan offerings, making it a mecca for non-meat eaters. But the competence of Chef Bill Bramble results in dishes that won't disappoint lovers of flesh and fowl. There are a wide array of pasta dishes and thin-crust pizzas, including three vegan pizzas topped with soy bacon, soy mozzarella, soy pepperoni, and/or vegan sausage.
The menu takes even more chances at brunch: ever heard of vegan French toast? It's a bold move; I wish I could call it a successful one. Unfortunately, mine should have come with a steak knife. An ample dose of cinnamon wafted up from the table and made the dish smell and taste delicious, but when ordering French toast you expect a light, fluffy texture. Other brunch offerings also were underwhelming. But perhaps it was an off day; since I've heard praise for the brunch in general and the French toast in particular, I'd be willing to give it another go.
As for dinner at Fellini, I spent $31 on a booze-less three-course meal — which isn't breaking the bank, but it's not what I'd call a bargain. But other than the price, I had no complaints. My "gypsy salad" of organic baby greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, capers, and blue cheese topped with a balsamic vinaigrette was ample and tasty. The addition of anchovies is optional with this dish, and I went for it — despite a hefty $2 fee (one of several surprising surcharges on the menu). To me the whole point of anchovies, given the wallop of salty, briny flavor you get from this tiny sliver of fish, is accent — which is to say that you don't need seven or eight thick slabs of them piled atop a starter salad. But that's what $2 gets you, so ... I'd rethink that part of the order upon return.
The anchovies set a sea-faring tone for my next course: Linguini Vongole, or pasta sautéed with sea clams in a white-wine-and-butter cream sauce. Hi, clogged arteries! was all that I could think while tucking into this rich dish — but that didn't stop me from savoring the lemony sauce and hearty clams that happily steered clear of fishiness. The enormous portion of this and other pastas begs to be split, which helps offset sticker shock at meal's end.
I did manage to save some room for Fellini's signature dessert: the vegan chocolate cake. I've written before in this space about my chocolate-cake fetish, but since I'm not a baker this fetish really has nothing to do with eggs, butter, or even sugar. My tastes run to bitter dark chocolate. So I experienced no Julia Child moment of horror at the thought of a cake made without eggs, butter, or cream. Even if I had, any prejudices would have disappeared after a bite of this dense and creamy vegan wonder. The cake didn't taste overly sugary or artificial — flaws I've encountered in other vegan desserts. Even the frosting tasted good, although there doesn't need to be quite so much of it (an inch is really overkill). My companion, suffering flashbacks from his years as a server at the Good Earth Cafe in San Francisco, complained of too much carob. This is one of those moments when ignorance is bliss — if you don't know what this oft-used chocolate substitute tastes like, it's not going to bother you.
Fellini is kind to wine drinkers: every Monday, all bottles are $12, and there's no corkage fee on Tuesdays. But I think the creative goodwill that Jeff Davis has bestowed upon his budget-conscious boozers may need to be applied toward other menu options as well, as we collectively settle into a period of belt-tightening. Sure, portions are huge, which can definitely cut costs when you're in the mood to share. But prix-fixe dinners, less-expensive side salads, and small plates are little touches that would make a difference to the customer's bottom line — leaving us a little more with which to pursue our own vision of la dolce vita.
For the record, mine includes free parking.
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