Sometimes it's nice to pause from the food critic's eternal search for the new and the obscure to take stock of a classic — or, like that old De La Soul song says, "perhaps the most famous classic" of all, at least if the topic is upscale Italian food in Oakland.
With its nearly thirty years of history, Oliveto is the grand dame of the Rockridge dining scene. Among other things, it has long been the go-to restaurant for well-to-do Rockridgians in need of a quiet and stately place to bring Grandma. The restaurant's recently remodeled formal upstairs dining room — with its white linens and ambitious (and quite expensive) menu — still very much has that vibe. For my money, Oliveto serves some of the most stunning pasta dishes in the East Bay, and its annual special dinners — the truffle-centric dinner, for instance, or the heirloom tomato-themed one — are the kind of blowout affairs that hardcore food enthusiasts plan their calendar around.
And yet: I've never been a regular customer, in large part because I've found the prices to be a little too steep and the atmosphere a little too stuffy.
I was intrigued, then, when I heard that Oliveto had launched a new "rosticceria" program during dinner hours in its more casual downstairs cafe. Modeled very loosely after a kind of Italian "storefront eating place," the rosticceria menu features ready-to-eat roasted and braised meats (maybe four or five options on any given night) served with a choice of two sides. And it represents something that would have been somewhat difficult to get at Oliveto in the past, even in the cafe: a complete dinner for $19.
The rosticceria also represents, at least in part, an effort on the part of co-owner Bob Klein and chef Jonah Rhodehamel to make the downstairs cafe more relevant and accessible to customers looking for a less involved dining experience — folks who, for instance, don't want to wait a half-hour for a chicken to be roasted to order. Because the rosticceria meats are braised or spit-roasted on a rotisserie grill earlier in the afternoon and then held in warming ovens, a customer can now, in theory, come into the restaurant, place a takeout order, and be out the door in ten minutes.
The shift toward a more meat-heavy menu is also just a matter of the restaurant deciding to emphasize its strengths. As Rhodehamel noted, Rockridge is home to about "fifty other pizza restaurants" — only a mild exaggeration. But not many other restaurants have a meat locker, as Oliveto does, which means they don't have the ability to buy whole animals — and to break down whole steers from Mendocino County-based Magruder Ranch, as Oliveto does. In that sense, the rosticceria is a logical extension of the whole-animal emphasis that has been one of the restaurant's hallmarks for a number of years.
Of course, none of this means much if the food isn't up to snuff, and my recent experiences with the rosticceria were a little bit hit-or-miss. Fortunately, the hits were more frequent than the misses.
Probably the most representative dish is the spit-roasted pork shoulder — two or three thick, luxurious slices that arrived on the plate still slightly pink, laced gorgeously with intermuscular fat, and topped with a delightful Calabrian chili "salsa" that was fruity and savory, if somewhat light on heat. My only quibble: The pork was tender, but I wish it was more tender — specifically, the fat could have been more soft and jiggly.
The most surprising rosticceria entrée option was a take on ghormeh sabzi, a kind of parsley-intensive Persian chicken stew — a departure from the Italian dishes that dominate the menu. Lo and behold, it was a solid version — not quite as flavor-packed, perhaps, as the best I've had in Oakland (served a couple of Friday nights a month at a Persian-owned deli in Montclair), but plenty fragrant and wholly traditional, as far as I could tell. Key ingredients include fenugreek and black lemon, Rhodehamel said.
And house-made Tuscan sausages, which just get roasted in the oven, were simple but exceedingly tasty: plump and juicy, with a nice snap to the casing, and served with an oregano-based salmoriglio, which was akin to a more herbaceous pesto.
The only real disappointment was an order of spit-roasted chicken, but that dish was a disaster. While the meat was tender enough, it had no real flavor apart from the generically sweet mushroom cream sauce on top. Most problematically, the skin wasn't properly rendered at all: It was chewy and flabby instead of being crispy or soft — the downside of pre-cooking the birds and holding them in a warming oven, perhaps.
Meanwhile, side dishes tended to be very simple but well executed. Particularly good was the red flint polenta, a varietal that's sold by co-owner Klein's whole-grain flour and pasta company, Community Grains. The polenta had an appealingly nutty flavor and a texture that reminded me of Thanksgiving cornbread dressing. I also loved the braised Romano beans, which were kissed with a touch of basil. My only critique: The roasted sweet potato cubes were too basic, not to mention seasonally inappropriate. And the Spanish-inspired, orange-tinged bomba rice, while tasty, wasn't an apt accompaniment for the ghormeh sabzi — a dish that begs for steamed white rice.
The whole point of a "meat and two" (and its Southern analog, the "meat and three") is that it's meant to be a complete, self-contained meal — and if you are a person of average appetite, Oliveto's rosticceria plate should fill you up just fine. But you may find it hard to resist supplementing your meal with one of the restaurant's simple, pristine salads: The roasted-beet number we ordered was neither too cold (as these things tend to be) nor too warm, and the salad's texture and flavor both benefitted from the addition of salted almonds.
What longtime customers — which is to say, most of Oliveto's customers — will be glad to hear is that the cafe has kept almost all of the classics from its previous menu, which include its selection of thin-crust pizzas and what might be the best, ooziest, and most satisfyingly meaty lasagna alla Bolognese in town.
The pizza, of course, had been the star of the old, pre-rosticceria downstairs menu — particularly because of the restaurant's impressive wood-fire oven, which was destroyed in a fire about three years ago and replaced with a gas oven. The thin-crust pies are made a little bit smaller now, but they're still good, and available in a whole-grain version that's about as tasty a whole-wheat pizza as you'll ever have. But Rhodehamel acknowledged that they might not be quite as "special" as the old, wood-fired pies. The hope is that folks will find the rosticceria to be more unique.
If there was any question that Oliveto was making an effort to keep up with the times: In the mornings, the downstairs cafe has started its own version of the omnipresent "Four Dollar Toast" trend — $3 for your choice of a toasted slice of plain whole-grain bread, or a seeded loaf with raisins. Both breads are baked in-house using Community Grains whole-wheat flours and, for a dollar or two extra, come with a little tub of house-made strawberry jam or smoked-fish spread. It's very, very good toast.
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