A little past midnight every day, Franco Camboli rolls into Borgo Italia Bar and Caffé, rubs the sleep out of his eyes, and prepares himself for a long night of working dough and whipping cream. As the old Dunkin' Donuts commercials used to say, "Time to make the doughnuts."
At Borgo Italia, Old Oakland's new Italian restaurant, the doughnuts in question are an array of delicate Italian pastries — the same kinds Camboli prepared at his family's pastry shop in Tuscany for thirty years: ciambelli, a kind of doughnut made from choux pastry that's sliced in half and filled with cream, and little Italian-style beignets.
If you read early previews of Borgo Italia, you might have gotten the impression that the pastry program was an afterthought, but no — the gleaming pastry case is probably the first thing you'll notice when you walk in. By the time the restaurant opens at 7 a.m., it's filled to the brim with a selection of treats that would be the envy of many full-service pastry shops.
There are assorted fruit tartlets, rice pudding cakes, little glass jars of panna cotta and tiramisu (made with house-made cookies rather than pre-bought ladyfingers), and other goodies that vary from day to day.
But the standout is Italy's take on the cream-filled doughnut. Each ciambella ($5) has the wrinkly appearance and the light but slightly chewy texture of a French cruller, and Camboli's cream filling — a family recipe, available in a several different flavors — is magic: super-smooth, airy, and neither too heavy nor too sweet.
The basic white cream is a mix of whipping cream and homemade pastry cream. Camboli tops these doughnuts with a bit of caramelized sugar, creating a combination of flavors he describes as "latte e miele": milk and honey.
Meanwhile, the beignets ($1.50 each) are mini versions of the ciambelli, except that the cream is enclosed inside the dough — cream puffs, basically. These, too, are available in a number of different flavors. I especially enjoyed the intense espresso oomph of a version filled with coffee cream and the rich egginess of the eggnog flavor.
Camboli is one of the restaurant's co-owners, so you'd think he has enough on his plate without also staying up all night making pastries. After all, he also oversees Borgo Italia's overall food program. Fortunately, Camboli said that he has a capable kitchen staff that's able to pick up the slack so the pastry guru can catch a quick nap in the afternoon. And the restaurant recently cut back its hours so that he now at least gets Sundays off. Regardless, the number of hours Camboli works each day seems patently unsustainable, but for now he's pulling it off — fueled, he said, by "the passion for the food."
Borgo Italia is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday to Saturday, so it's also one of the only late-night takeaway pastry options around town.
'Gangnam Style' Flash-Mob Dinner
If, like me, you've wasted hours of your life watching the "Gangnam Style" music video, pondered the song's underlying cultural significance, and practiced PSY's signature "invisible horse" dance move in the hopes of finding a socially appropriate time to bust it out — and if, on top of that, you enjoy Asian food and wacky themed cocktails, here's an event that is tailor-made for you: On Wednesday, October 10, Dishcrawl is hosting a Gangnam Style flash-mob dinner event wherein participants will eat their way through three Oakland restaurants and bars and, at an agreed-upon time during each stop, break into dance.
Sarah Kompelien, Dishcrawl's East Bay event organizer, explained that the San Jose-based company takes the time-honored tradition of the progressive dinner — a dinner party in which each course is prepared and eaten at a different person's home — and applies it to a restaurant context. Typically, participants will visit a succession of four different restaurants, sit at big communal tables, and sample two or three dishes at each place.
The cost of a ticket covers food, tax, and tip; drinks can be purchased with cash on site. Dishcrawl negotiates a price with each restaurant and then charges customers enough to make a small profit.
Wednesday's "crawl" will kick off at 7 p.m. at Vo's Restaurant, move onto Ozumo, and then finish up at Era Art Bar and Lounge. Tickets are $25 and are available online in limited quantities, via DishCrawl.com/dishcrawl/301.
The specific food offerings will be a surprise, though Kompelien stressed that all of the options are relatively "safe" and that allergies and dietary restrictions can be accommodated with advance notice. Often, restaurants serve fun off-menu items — for instance, Era will be selling a special Gangnam cocktail that its bartenders have created.
In terms of the flash-mob element, attendees are encouraged to dress up "Gangnam style" — whatever that means to you. A team from the travel review site Gogobot will be on hand to lead the actual dancing — in the meantime, it wouldn't hurt to get in a little bit of practice.
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