I've had, I don't know, five meals at Riva Cucina, and each one has been marred by things a food critic is supposed to get pissy about, such as bread that shows up with either butter or olive oil depending on some impenetrable logic of the waitstaff. If it's a butter day, there's a good chance it will taste like the stale essence of fridge. I've slogged through steamed rice that felt like bits of waterlogged popcorn in the mouth. I've endured missed plates of bread, unrecited daily specials, and inexplicable waits for iced tea or water. One day a thawed frozen dessert left a wistful and slightly soggy impression. And yet to my own surprise, I'm kind of totally in love with Riva Cucina, and not for any reason as boring or brittle as perfection.
Despite flaws and opening jitters, the little West Berkeley trattoria is already a good restaurant. I reckon it'll soon be a very good restaurant, someday even be a great restaurant. Right now it's noticeably raw, and say a prayer it stays that way. Not raw in the let's-open-a-pirate-restaurant-in-our-cat-pee-apartment way, but raw like elemental, bubbling up through a chef with a gorgeously rudimentary sense of proportion. Chef and co-owner Massimiliano Boldrini has a knack for banging out food that seems to cut so deep it exposes little glints of bone. When food gets that deep, then, seriously, what's a little funkiness in the butter?
Take pasta con le sarde, pasta with sardines, a special I tried one day after the restaurant had been open for a month. A jammy, long-cooked onion-and-fresh-tomato sauce coated stumpy, house-made pasta tubes, a kind of fusion of sauce and noodle. As a single effect it was beautiful, a humid, vegetal sweetness and the chew of good pasta. But the four fleshy grilled sardine fillets set precisely on top added a pungency that alternated between queasy and delicious. The effect was of an otherwise unrestrained sweetness held in check by dark, fishy oils. I felt as if I was present at the birth of what has widely morphed into the sad little Italian-American dish, pasta marinara. Maybe the original was an honest and homely tomato sauce like this, fortified by the cheapest thing the fisherman's wife, the marinara, could glean from her man's catch.
Filtered through traditional Italian-food sensibilities, the simplest things can taste primordial, and Boldrini is a traditionalist not surprising for a guy who grew up in Emilia-Romagna, the region in northern Italy that announces to the world how it invented pasta. Working through that sardine pasta was an act of probing the chef's brain with a fork, exposing the taste memories of someone who grew up in a world completely alien to that of the typical American chef, with its evil influences of pizza pockets and blue raspberry Slurpees.
That's the thing about Riva Cucina: From the organic olive oil (green fruit spiked with pepper) to the tagliatelle alla Bolognese (with its sauce of meats and milk the chef says takes two hours of his undivided attention to braise), you feel as if you're eating your way through some coherent worldview of how things should taste.
It's a worldview propped up on a strictly local, rigorously seasonal sense of provisioning, with the sensibility of the nation that launched Slow Food. Seafood, the most consistently locally sourced category on Riva Cucina's menu, is also consistently fabulous. Capesante e melanzane, an antipasto, was a sauté of sea scallops whose texture was like firm custard. They had salty, golden top crusts that tasted like caramelized Parmesan. The scallops surrounded a drumlike heap of diced, roasted eggplant and zucchini, a neutral and almost exclusively textural backdrop that allowed the scallops to shine.
Filetto di persico, seared California white bass, had a chunky whiteness that turned to pale caramel in the sauté pan, leaving flesh that hovered between firm and soft, a good kind of gelatinousness. It was sauceless, as if salt, pepper, and the fish's own moisture were all the condiments it needed, which was just about true. There was bitterness and bite from a vinegary braise of red cabbage, radicchio, and pancetta, and, well, that disappointingly raggedy steamed Carnaroli rice I mentioned in the opening.
The produce sparkles, too, with a seasonal aspect that becomes more evident the more times you eat here. So an antipasto of mozzarella di bufala a quartered, oval ball of firm, fresh cheese with the complex sweetness of caramelized milk sugars came with acidy-sugary cherry tomatoes on one day, and marinated beets and little sprigs of watercress on another. It showed how supple the kitchen could be, the ability to make substitutions depending on what showed up in a particular day's produce crates.
Made with spiky-leaved arugula grown in Sonoma County, insalata di rucola was among the best I've tasted. Organic balsamico and olive oil formed an infusion that coated the leaves, but the salad's gloriously pervasive flavor came from small, skin-on almonds that'd been toasted and chopped and seeded thorough the mass of leaves. The nuts conjured an amber, resinous perfume that completely gilded over the arugula's bitterness.
Available during lunch hours only, panini are rustic and filling and not at all like the crispy, melty sammies you might have been expecting. They're cold, with fillings plastered into split and floury Acme baguette rolls, the kind of sandwich you have to tug at with your choppers. Panino con agnello, a version filled with cold roast lamb, had lusciousness to spare. Credit the thick slices of pink lamb, but also a nest of onions that had been caramelized so slowly that they ended up both meltingly sweet and delicately blond. That long, patient cooking amounted to perfection, at a place where even imperfection seems less like failure and more like personality.
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Then again, just launching Riva Cucina required boatloads of stamina. The restaurant is in the old Durkee Building in the Aquatic Park Center, a block west of the Scharffen Berger factory. The space used to be a cafe-and-sandwich joint and, who knows, probably should still be one. Which means it's a modest, all-but-invisible spot for a place as serious as Riva Cucina: a dozen well-spaced tables inside, and the same number out in the handsome courtyard that looks out to a preschool. It was the courtyard that made the space seem irresistible, according to Jen Boldrini, the chef's wife and the restaurant's general manager. "Massi's idea was to have this really cool community building where people could hang out," she told me by phone. To make the place feel hang-outable, they brought in dark woods and splashed around terra-cotta paint. But the hardwood floor didn't get installed before opening day. The former occupant's heathered beige linoleum survives in all its hard, shiny glory, an unlikely whiff of cafeteria. Think of it as a reminder of what still feels beautifully raw here.
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