Anybody can name their place a ristorante, serve a few pasta dishes, and call it an Italian restaurant. (I'm not naming names. You know who you are.) But if I had any doubt about the Italianness of Bar and Ristorante Raphael, the waiters dispelled it within the first five minutes. A friend of the chef's sat next to my table, starting up a whirlwind of Mediterranean bonhomie. First the chef, then the manager, then all the waiters came over to slap backs and crack jokes in Italian. Then, on the way back to the bathroom I passed our waiter shouting into his cell phone, his free hand flapping about like a limb possessed. I craned my neck to peer out the window, suddenly sure I'd see a row of Vespas parked outside.
Raphael's high authenticity factor was an unexpected plus. I wasn't just visiting Raphael because it was the newest Italian joint on the block. I had to go because it's the Bay Area's first kosher Italian restaurant.
The Jewish presence in Italy dates back to the days of the Roman Republic, writes Joyce Goldstein in her 1998 cookbook Cucina Ebraica. According to Goldstein, the original Hebrew settlers on the boot, called the Italkim in present-day Italy, were followed by waves of Sephardim fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and Ashkenazim chasing the fleeting dream of tolerance.
After many centuries of dispersal and assimilation of the population, Italian Jewish food has come to resemble the communities that created it: "Italian first, Jewish second," as Goldstein writes. Subtle traces of its history emerge here and there: Beef and lamb substitutions for Italian standards that call for pork, as well as dishes that may be served cold on the Sabbath. Salt cod, sweet-and-sour flavors, and egg-lemon sauces are some of the most distinct remnants of Sephardic cuisine -- not to mention the bounty of New World foods (say, tomatoes and peppers) that the Sephardic émigrés brought with them from the Iberian peninsula. And the Eastern European inflection shows up in cabbage dishes and meat loafs.
Though they print a primer on Jewish Italian history on the menu, co-owners Noah Alper, of Noah's Bagels fame, and Domenico Testa, chef-owner of Caffè Delle Stelle, are less concerned with capturing the flavors of la cucina ebraica than they are with providing an attractive, affordable alternative for kosher diners. (The restaurant is certified kosher by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco.)
Chef Testa avoids the practical trickiness of respecting the laws of kashruth -- maintaining separate cooking implements and plates for dairy and meat, for example -- by cutting out the meat altogether. There's fish aplenty, though, as long as it has scales. Anchovies have scales. Tuna has scales. Salmon has scales. That's all you need to know. Most of the menu ends up being vegetarian, and vegans will find more options than usual.
With such a focus, many of the dishes that Italians would consider middle courses -- namely, pizza and pasta -- have become entrées. Nevertheless, it's a style of dining that matches American tastes and budgets, and much of the food was made with the Italian gift for simplicity and grace.
The tuna spiedino, for example: Three small skewers of ahi, each containing a couple of bites at most, grilled to medium rare and drizzled with a honey-thyme sauce. Much like a thick vinaigrette, the sauce had a slight sweet-sour dynamic but neither sweet nor sour sidelined the meaty flavor of the tuna. Likewise, there was nothing more to the funghi trifolati than mushrooms sautéed in white wine and garlic, but when it's done right, what more do you need? Just bread to sop up the sauce.
I invited my first set of dining companions -- who had just returned from Positano the week before -- because they'd learned a thing or two about pizzas on the Amalfi coast. Testa got the vacationers' thumbs-up on his crust -- thin and crackly, the unsauced edges inflating in the wood-fired pizza oven. He also won a kiss of the fingertips for keeping the cheese to a minimum. Personally, I would have been happier with more than a single basil leaf on the classic margherita, an otherwise perfectly delicious cheese-and-tomato-sauce pizza. I preferred the vulcano, which gets its fire from chile oil but tempers it with sweet roasted yellow and green peppers, the occasional salt-bomb of an anchovy, and a thin slick of tomato sauce.
Much of the pasta is made fresh in-house (vegans can request eggless pasta). Chef Testa mixes his potato gnocchi up every day, and they're a marvel of culinary engineering -- ephemeral "pillows," as the menu aptly calls them, that hold up to the sauce just long enough to make it into the mouth. Tomatoes tinted the thick, herb-flecked cream sauce bright orange and kept the last bite tasting as bright and snappy as the first.
Similarly, the linguine had a firm, springy bite, and a deceptively small amount of sauce -- a few tomatoes, olive oil, a sprinkling of herbs, a few chile flakes. "You can taste the pasta through it," my friend Dan said in wonder. Exactly. Chunks of sautéed salmon poked out of the tangle here and there, and they were moist and meaty, but we found ourselves picking the meat out so as not to weigh down the translucent elegance of the sauce.
There I was, ready to write all things glowing, when I tucked into a third pasta. And reeled. It was the second-worst pasta I've ordered in years (you don't want to hear about the first): wide fettuccine with potatoes, green beans, and pesto. Sounds like something an Italian could whip up in his sleep, right? Well, the floppy, gummy, overcooked noodles were drenched -- a characteristic you should never expect -- in a bright green sauce that even in gross volumes tasted dour, dull, and heavy. I'd have been more content with motor oil.
Thankfully, it only took two desserts to recover. A third of the way through a chilled ricotta cheese soufflé, and I stopped scowling. I was too busy rolling the puffy, eggy concoction around my mouth, savoring the interplay of creamy and grainy, illuminated by the tang of lemon juice. By the time I had dug down through the frothy, Madeira-spiked zabaglione to dredge up the last blackberry, letting it burst on the tongue with a tart gush, my goodwill returned. I had to celebrate with a thin, incredibly dense valentino, an eggless dark-chocolate cake, surrounded by cream-spiked whiskey.
The jovial, heavily accented waiters do more to convey authentic Italian than the decor, which reads "authentic Italian!!" The renovations that lightened up the space once occupied by Via Centro -- seemingly lifting the ceiling a couple of feet by painting it into a sky -- completely destroyed the stylish, romantic appeal of the room. Those long, curving cherry-wood banquettes and bar, which I fell in love with at Via Centro, are still there, trampled over by such Italian clichés as peach sponge-bathed walls (hello, 1980) and Mediterranean murals. The restaurant no longer oozes money, just cheer.
Raphael's food, luckily, is good enough that I'd encourage Chef Testa to delve even further into Italian-Jewish cuisine. It's also good enough, and sufficiently priced, to appeal to just about any Berkeley constituency: The orthodox. The vegans. The students. The theatergoers. The foodies. Even me.
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