The snack has been a globally cherished dining concept for the past several centuries, but only recently have nibbles and noshes attained gourmet status here in the United States. Back in the old country, tapas, mezes, zensai, and zakuski are a time-tested method to absorb a little protein when a full-on meal requires too much culinary commitment. Italy in particular offers all kinds of sip-and-munch establishments: the enoteca, a candlelit nook fragrant with Barolo, Chianti, and Valpolicella; the caffè, the ideal venue for espresso-sipping and people-watching; the antipasti bar with its saucers of salumi and formaggio; the ornate little pasticceria, where the sweets and pastries are singular works of art. Cioccolata Di Vino, a classy new hangout in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, combines the pasticceria, the wine bar, the caffè, and the antipasti joint into one venue, thereby satisfying all of one's snacking needs in a single attractive location. The word "snack" does a disservice to chef/owner Rebecca Bernstein's carefully crafted offerings, though. Taken together, her delicious array of sweets and small plates offers all the makings of a light breakfast, an afternoon nibble, or a multicourse meal.
The elegant setting combines Old World baroque with Shattuck Avenue's friendly neighborhood vibe. Chef Bernstein's evocative photographs of urban Firenze accent a warm, rich color scheme of caramel, chocolate, and burgundy. A high-ceilinged bar area up front features handcrafted mahogany tables, a curved counter for single dining, and an open kitchen beyond, while a tucked-away section toward the back offers a more lounge-y draperies-and-banquettes ambience. It's the ideal milieu for a simple snack of not-so-simple delicacies.
The involtini di melanzane, for instance, are filets of fork-tender eggplant layered with thick shards of Parma prosciutto and Fior di Latte mozzarella, rolled and grilled until warm and luscious, and strewn with fresh mint; the combination of sweet-salty prosciutto, rich and bubbly cheese, and smoky eggplant was earthy and delectable. Prosciutto also accents a goat cheese tartlet that was mildly sharp in flavor, dense and creamy in texture, and yummy from start to finish. The cannellini en cazuela (white beans in casserole) could've used a bit of salt, but the dish's light, crisp texture and garlicky-rosemary after-bite made for a nice palate cleanser. It came with slender toasts of exemplary house-baked ciabatta bread drizzled with golden olive oil.
A few dishes change daily. We enjoyed a zuppa del giorno of tomato and eggplant that was so rich, hearty, and rustic in nature, it was more ratatouille than soup. Our pasta of the day, capellini, and its plate-mate, smoked Alaskan salmon with capers and lemon, were perfectly tasty separately, but the ultraskinny pasta needed a heavier sauce to keep the accompaniments occupied, and the result was an impenetrable mass of carbohydrates atop a platter of lox. But the frittata of the day was a light and lovely success, a soufflé billowing out of its ramekin with bits of onion, pepper, and tomato ribboned throughout.
Chocolate gets top billing here, and for good reason. Bernstein favors top-shelf Callebaut Belgian chocolate in her baking, and the results are worth noting. The chocolate polenta cake was a rich, creamy slab of black velvet with a bittersweet, almost peppery aftertaste. A trio of truffles barely larger than aggie marbles were dark as pitch, barely sweetened, densely sticky, and delivered more zip and endorphins per milligram than the chewiest espresso. And the chocolate chip pecan cookies were like nuts and candy chunks barely held together with a spoonful of undercooked dough: perhaps better than the best Toll Houses.
The menu's other desserts were almost as good. Our gelato of the day, caramel balsamic, was odd in theory and delectable in practice: buttery, toffeelike ice cream with a fruity, ferocious bite to it, and irresistible after the first spoonful. The risotto pudding — kind of sweet, slightly chewy, and suffused with the flavor of brandied fig — wasn't as successful. But the honey and pine nut tart layered whole pignolas atop buttery caramel and a shortbread crust to excellent sweet-and-salty effect, and the ricotta tart was even better: a lighter, more refreshing variation on cheesecake, with a lush cornmeal crust and the sweet tang of orange peel. And if you just want something to dunk into your coffee, the biscotti were light, buttery, and rich with the flavor of sesame.
As its name indicates, Cioccolata Di Vino is as much wine bar as sweet shop, and the place has the (carefully assembled) wine list to prove it. The cellar's nearly three dozen offerings were selected to complement the sweet and spicy flavors of the menu, and they range from Ronchi di Pietro's pinot grigio (nice with the goat cheese tartlet) to Terre di Gioia's pinot nero (perfect with the involtini) to Terregaie's tart, bracing prosecco (a marvelous aperitif all on its own). There's also a wide array of dessert wines (natch), including a Bodega Bay Port Works white port that does those chocolate chip cookies proud. Most wines are available by the glass (six by the taste); red and white flights are offered as well. In addition there are two beers on tap, Alaskan Amber and Blue Moon.
More than half of the items on the antipasti menu are meat-free and suitable for vegetarians (if not vegans). Options include a platter of robiola, pecorino, and cambozola cheeses with figs, almonds, chestnut honey, and macerated apricots; a mixed salad with crimini mushrooms, dried cranberries, roasted almonds, and gorgonzola; bruschetta with goat cheese and tomato sauce; savory rosemary-parmesan biscotti; oven-roasted olives with fresh herbs; and the garlic-rosemary cannellini beans. (Although the soup and the frittata we sampled were both vegetarian-friendly, these items change daily.)
Cioccolata Di Vino is a welcome addition to the local dining scene. It's a place where you can breakfast on cioccolata densa and a freshly baked cornetto, enjoy a snack or a meal of zuppa, pasta, insalata, and gelato, chat with a friend over a couple of glasses of wine, or sip an espresso and watch the world go by. Just like in the old country.
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