Small Indulgences 

A new addition to the Gourmet Ghetto offers low-key, user-friendly Italian fare.

In my college dining hall, and maybe in yours, chicketti referred to a hot food item that combined chicken and spaghetti in such a way that made you never want to order it. Not so in the osterie of Venice, where the homonymic cicchetti has long referred instead to Italian-style small plates that precede the main meal — or replace it, if you're eating light. Like Spanish tapas, these dishes are primarily popular as an accompaniment to drinks.

Thankfully, it's cicchetti and not chicketti — that anchor the menu at new Gourmet Ghetto arrival Misto Italian Bistro, which has taken over the Shattuck Avenue space of longtime Berkeley institution Phoenix Pastificio. The folks at Misto are betting you haven't yet heard of cicchetti, so to offset confusion, they are pictured sushi-style on laminated cheat sheets that come with your menu. Stopping in at Misto for lunch on an un-busy Friday, we scanned the photos of offerings both unusual (breaded, fried olives stuffed with chicken and beef) and familiar (grilled portobello mushroom) and decided to order the prettiest ones.

It's hard to screw up prosciutto with pear and Gorgonzola, but Misto has done something special here, with a drizzle of what appeared to be crème fraîche artfully tying together the sweet and salty flavors that make this dish so good. The capesante — grilled scallops and arugula salad — was equally tasty, with the scallops perfectly tender and the truffle-oil dressing offering just the right accompaniment to the arugula's bitterness. The only disappointment was the gnocco di pane. Since gnocco is the singular form of gnocchi, I dared to dream that this dish, described as a puffed pastry stuffed with mushroom and goat cheese, would be more dumpling-like. Alas, it was more puff than stuff, with a papery, dry exterior and little mushroom or goat cheese inside.

Sharing several cicchetti seems to be the best way to enjoy a meal at Misto, but there are no major complaints about the rest of the ample menu. It's fairly traditional Northern Italian, with a couple of classic Tuscan soups — tomato-bread and borlotti bean — several creatively rendered salads, pizzas, and pastas, and an extensive list of secondi that includes a classic cioppino and a cacciatore-style game hen.

The Aldo salad, basically greens with a sprinkling of "crisp" sausage (think bacon bits), masterfully matched the flavors of sausage, fennel, and arugula, but the sausage sprinkling was a bit too heavy. The personal pizzas — hand-stretched and with a thicker crust than what I usually think of as Italian-style — are enormous and piled high with fresh ingredients. I excitedly ordered the cipolline e arugula because it featured anchovies, but upon its arrival I sadly noticed only one little fish. If there were others, they were tasteless and well concealed, much to the relief of my anchovy-hating companion.

The lasagna arrotolata is a house specialty: rolled spinach lasagna filled with cooked ham, Gruyère, Parmesan, and fresh spinach, baked in a four-cheese cream sauce. Our server advised us that the dish was both very rich and not your typical lasagna, with its large noodles more closely resembling ravioli. This was an apt description, but we wish we'd been warned about the dish's sweetness. Nutmeg was the dominant flavor in three compact pieces that were indeed unusual — elaborate and tasty, to be sure, but you'd definitely have to be craving something more sweet than savory to enjoy it. Desserts offered a more happily welcomed sweetness — crème brûlée, affogato di gelato, and a dense hazelnut-chocolate cake served in small sliced rounds were all carefully crafted and satisfying.

One note about the Misto dinner experience: I am mocked in certain circles for a Blanche DuBois-esque aversion to brightly lit social settings, but a companion backed me up on the fact that Misto's nighttime lighting could use some aggressive dimming. The dining room's simplicity actually has a refreshing charm, but with tea lights running you something like $3 for 100 at nearby IKEA, it would be well worth it to buy some and give our inner Blanches some peace.

Misto co-owner Marlene De Marchi is quick to emphasize that the new restaurant she helms with her husband, chef Donato De Marchi, aims to give its patrons "small indulgences." And granted, the couple has big shoes to fill; Phoenix Pastificio was a lunchtime favorite with a loyal following (its fresh pasta and pastries are still popular items at various area farmers' markets). But the bright lighting, laminated cicchetti guide, and looped video of authentic Italian landmarks playing on a centrally located flat-screen TV do give a sense of something just slightly off about Misto's execution.

The De Marchis' San Francisco restaurant, Vino e Cucina, closed in 2005 — much to the dismay of diners who praised its affordable, good-quality cuisine, great service, and a refreshing lack of pretense. Following the Vino e Cucina model, and with a prime location and an eager, helpful staff, Misto seems well positioned to work out its kinks and become a low-key alternative to the cultish eateries down the way. It would be great to see a more affordable list of wines by the glass, to better match the menu, and those with gluten allergies would surely love to know of Misto's array of gluten-free pastas, which are not listed. Still, given the Bay Area's abundance of gimmick-happy new restaurants with almost unreadably "artisanal" menus, Misto's intentions seem remarkably pure, and this sense carried me happily through two meals here.


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