Once upon a time -- well, actually, three months ago -- Cheryl Principato, Rudy Duran, and Alessandro Guerrazzi decided to bring Italian-style fine dining to Alameda. Genoa-born Guerrazzi had trained in US cooking schools, Livorno native Duran had been in the biz in Italy, and Principato, whose family originally hailed from Palermo, grew up in a restaurant household. The three figured they had a few stories to tell about Italian cooking. So they named their restaurant C'era Una Volta, as in Once Upon a Time ...
The first step was to teach Americans about the proper place of pasta. Most of us think that pasta is what you eat when you're not feeling too peckish, and main courses are for satisfying that greater hunger. But not in Italy, where they want it all. Most of the Italian restaurants in the Bay Area divide their dinner menus, Italian-style, into antipasti, primi piatti (pasta or risotto dishes), and secondi piatti (main courses). But C'era Una Volta is one of the few restaurants that backs up its three-course approach with pricing that encourages people to order the whole deal. Its three-course prezzo fisso lists for $35, and if you tack on $5 you can get dessert as well.
Too bad I couldn't get any of my friends to go for the full meal. Since my visits, the owners have introduced smaller-sized primi piatti to fit within a multicourse meal. But when I dined at C'era Una Volta, the waiters told us that the chefs didn't scale down the portions for the complete Italian dining experience. In fact, bowing to American habits, many of the primi piatti double as lighter entrées. None of us could justify sending back half of each course uneaten.
Although, with the amateurish appetizers, that's what happened anyway.
On one night, we ordered a polpo (octopus) and potato salad, and the pile of purple tentacles, white potato slices, and greens looked appetizing. But octopus is one of those ingredients that needs to be cooked in a flash or it toughens up -- and then you have to braise forever to bring the meat back to velvety tenderness. Unfortunately, the cooks had pulled it from the pot somewhere in between, and it didn't take long for my jaw to get sore. Worse, they had dressed it in a vinaigrette so lackluster that a squeeze of lemon couldn't spark it to life.
On another night we had a similar problem with a platter of roasted mussels, each served on the half shell and dabbed with a loose compote of tomatoes and garlic. The ginormous mollusks were so tough that we had to tug to separate the meat from the shell. Whatever flavor might have been left was blanketed in barely cooked garlic and acidic tomatoes. So we switched over to a baby spinach salad with walnuts, red onions, and dabs of fresh goat cheese. The leaves were beaded with a sugar-heavy balsamic vinegar that had no bite -- with no mustard, garlic, salt, or anything that would fill out its flavor.
But as the meal progresses, the quality of the food improves. Dishes rotate on and off the small menu frequently, ostensibly to take advantage of "market-fresh" ingredients, even though there wasn't anything I couldn't pick up at Safeway in December.
Big, round ravioli di aragosta (lobster) floated in a coral-tinged lobster-cognac cream sauce. The pasta rounds, nicely al dente, were packed with sweet white meat, and there were more chunks of lobster scattered on top. But the chefs hadn't infused the cream sauce with much lobster flavor, so the crustacean meat drowned in cream. Things started looking up with the spinach panzerotti. In many parts of Italy, panzerotti are a sort of fried dumpling, but in Alameda they looked like ravioli, filled with spinach and nutmeg-tinged ricotta and coated in a thin layer of a chunky, rich tomato sauce.
By the secondi piatti, the chefs had hit their stride: a pork tenderloin, pink at the core, was topped with a meaty sauce made with Chianti, porcini, and cremini mushrooms. Slices of chicken breast were marinated in herbs and garlic and pan-fried just until cooked through. A sea bass fillet was simply pan-roasted and anointed with lemon juice and parsley. All three came with steamed snap beans, carrots, and mashed potatoes that my friend Ellen described as "the high point of the meal." They were intentionally chunky, but the chunks dissolved in the mouth, and the cooks had folded enough cream into the mash for them to taste luxurious.
Yes, the dessert menu lists tiramisu. But the owners also offer homey Italian desserts that you won't find elsewhere, such as the torta Toscanella, with a crust of puff pastry and pastry-cream-filled beignets, all scribbled with chocolate sauce. We also ordered the tartufo di limoncello, made with lemon liqueur, but received the tartufo di amarena -- an ice cream truffle, rolled in crunchy chocolate bits, with a core of wild-cherry preserves.
What C'era Una Volta does have going for it is that it's a lovely place to eat. Hidden in an alley off Park Street next to Amarin Thai, the entrance looks like the side door to a 19th-century factory. The owners combined two restaurants -- last known as Zorba's Pizza and Arco-Iris -- into a multipurpose space that's often open from 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. Inside the door, there's a deli counter for coffee and pastries in the morning and to-go panini and pastas at lunch. Through an arched doorway is a butter-walled, two-story room lit by high wide windows and filled with rows of linen-covered tables. A mezzanine juts above the bar, level with hanging alabaster lamps and colorful big-format paintings. Surprisingly, though, you don't feel lost in the vast overhead space. Instead, the high ceilings suck up the conversation from surrounding tables.
The waiters and busers all had a good sense of how to pace a meal, and kept an eye on its progress to make sure we didn't wait or want for anything. One waiter's patter was so canned, however, that my friend Jennifer finally had to call him on it. "You've said this a hundred times today, haven't you?" she asked, interrupting his explanation of the desserts. His eyes goggled and then unglazed, and then his human face slipped out from behind the mask. "Yeah, I guess I have," he faux-laughed, in a completely different voice. Then he recovered. I'm not fond of prepackaged service, but he knew how to do his job.
C'era Una Volta's wine list, priced to sell, is an education in Italian wines. It contains everything from Barolos, Orvietos, and Chiantis to names I've never heard of. The waiters aren't completely familiar with the vintages, either, but they don't try to bullshit their way out of it. Each time we had a question, they called for Duran, the restaurant's de facto sommelier -- who does know what he's talking about.
C'era Una Volta has the spirit of a decent neighborhood restaurant but the prices of a destination spot. If its owners hope to get folks back across the Park Street bridge a second, third, or fourth time, they're going to have to improve the plot somewhat.