Salumi is the tapas or crème brûlée of the present moment: one of those venerable Old World foodstuffs that suddenly surfaces on one trendy menu or another Tuesday afternoon and takes over the restaurant business by the end of the weekend. It seems like every self-respecting Italian eatery in the greater Bay Area has leaped on the dried 'n' cured bandwagon over the past year or so, serving up slices of (preferably house-preserved) pancetta, prosciutto, salami, and mortadella, and reconfiguring the traditional checkered-tablecloth antipasti platter in the process. At salumerias like Boccalone, Fra' Mani, and Baron's, and at such upscale ristorantes as Perbacco, Incanto, Oliveto, and Dopo, the locals have learned to love the spicy, lush, protein-rich pleasures of handcrafted artisan cold cuts. Aged, cured, fat-ribboned meat has of course been around for centuries, usually accessorized with stale breadsticks and a few slices of rubbery mozzarella, but it's only fairly recently that the gourmet version has attained the singular status (and stipend) of raw fish, chocolate truffles, and extra-añejo tequila.
Salumi reaches an especially lofty level of respectability at Adesso, a trendy new hangout in Oakland's Piedmont Avenue neighborhood. Owner Jon Smulewitz (of the aforementioned Dopo) and salumieri extraordinaire Chad Arnold cook up a dizzying array of uniquely spiced bresaola, coppa, lardo, and soppressata that redefines the whole cold-cut concept. There's more to the place than sbricciolona with thyme and prosecco, though. Exotic pâtés and hearty panini and piadina share menu space with a wide range of unique antipasti, the full bar dispenses a dozen inventive cocktails, the all-Italian wine list is a sight to behold, and the venue's snack-laden happy hour is among the Bay Area's most bountiful. This is an attractive place to snack, sip, dine, and mingle.
The restaurant's largely concrete industrial-high-concept interior is blessed with enormous street-side windows, polished parquet floors, and the big-city vibe of a hip and flourishing hotspot. A three-sided counter seats dozens of diners and drinkers, there are high and low tables for groups and families (the restaurant's demographic is happily multigenerational), a rather incongruous foosball table is tucked next to a striking glass-fronted wine cabinet, and the din resulting from all this camaraderie can get, at the very least, distracting. Especially when the narrow back counter is loaded down with that free happy-hour grub and the crowds descend like donkeys at a salt lick.
Ourselves included. Because we aren't talking here about chips, salsa, and Chex Mix but juicy little deep-fried meatballs, fingers of panini oozing with prosciutto and mozzarella, canapés topped with seafood and capers, glistening leafy salads crunchy with sea salt, marinated string beans and pickled olives and creamy deviled eggs jazzed with sardines. And surprisingly substantial sandwiches of soft Acme sweet roll and slivers of that house-cured salumi. (You can see the sausages hanging in a case over the bar alongside loins and rounds of cured meat, waiting for a date with the slicer.) There are up to forty varieties available on any given day, seasoned with everything from orange blossom honey to wild Calabrian oregano, and the best way to sample a few is by ordering one of the salumi misti platters of three to five varietals. The Sicilia misti features two subtly distinct fennel-accented Sicilian-style sausages, the titular adesso (flavored with whole Sicilian fennel seeds), and the finocchiana (made with fennel pollen), plus origano and aglio, a hard sausage touched with garlic and fresh oregano. All three were a bit chewy to the tooth, like meat reduced to its textural essence, and boasted a correspondingly lusty intensity. Another salume, extra-lean bresaola, is one of the few crafted from beef instead of pork. Air-dried until absolutely tender, it was a delicate, paper-thin, peppery treat.
There's an equally impressive selection of pâtés made in house from duck, rabbit, chicken, pigeon, and other wildlife. The pigeon was our favorite, a rich, creamy, more exotic version of goose liver pate with hints of cippolini onion and sun-dried tomato. The rabbit had a coarser, more rustic texture but was surprisingly bland, with saffron providing the only hint of taste and color. Buttery rounds of lightly toasted Acme sourdough accompanied. Another antipasto, tuna crudo, featured chunks of cool, luscious raw tuna combined with fresh basil and bits of roasted tomato served on rounds of warm chickpea-flour polenta — a marvelous and inventive combination of tastes and textures.
Piadina (griddled flatbread) is a popular street food back in Italy, and at Adesso it's rolled and stuffed with a variety of fillings and served as a hearty snack. After all that meat product we opted for the vegetarian version, in which diced al dente zucchini, sweet grilled red onion, and molten mozzarella melted together into a warm, toasty, satisfying mini-meal. The kitchen also grills up several panini, one of which, the crostone of tuna confit with lemon and mint, tasted like a glorified and perfectly adequate tuna salad sandwich. A much more delectable choice was the hot soft-shell crab panino, in which the crustacean's sweet, briny, crunchy character clashed deliciously with its pillowy torpedo roll, garlicky aioli, and snarky watercress.
Desserts include a small selection of cheeses including brescianella stagionata, a soft, slightly pungent cow's milk formaggio from Lombardy served here with sweet and silky fresh figs. You can also get a rather dry and endorphin-free flourless chocolate cake or (a better bet) one of the rich, chewy housemade gelati — the creamy, butterscotch-y hazelnut, perhaps, or our favorite, the positively Proustian Sicilian lemon honey, a sweet and buttery return to childhood.
There isn't much for vegetarians to munch on at this temple to pork fat and variety meats: fresh mozzarella with basil and tomato; potatoes with capers, lemon, and sage; two salads, marinated olives, and romano beans with mint and Calabrian chili; the zucchini-mozzarella piadina. And cheese and gelato for dessert.
The wine list offers a virtual tippler's tour up and down the boot of Italy, with a remarkable selection of 300-plus vintages from just about every region. Ranging in price from $30 to $350 per bottle, there's something for every imaginable pairing, palate and occasion. (Twenty-eight are available by the glass.) Other sipping options include a brief but impressive beer list, a nice selection of aperitifs, digestifs, dessert wines, and grappas, and a dozen unique house cocktails from the full bar. We were especially taken with the Pesca, a summery, eye-opening concoction of peach brandy, peach bitters, and peach-infused bourbon, and the slightly subtler Provencale, a floral, sun-kissed, absolutely bracing glass of lavender-infused gin, herbes de Provence-infused vermouth and a hint of Cointreau. Very nice enjoyed at the bar with a platter of first-class nibbles, three dozen salumi waiting in the wings.