Do the Germans, the folks who brought us schadenfreude and weltschmerz, have a word for that uncomfortable mix of sympathy and relief you feel when you've just avoided other people's misfortune? Whatever that emotion might be, I confess I felt it in January upon finding out that Pinole's buzz-gathering Ristorante Due Rose had closed to repair a kitchen fire -- just days before my first exploratory visit.
Having previously had the bad fortune to arrive at restaurants that were closed for the day, the week, or forever, I have finally learned to call before leaving the house. I've phoned a restaurant on my deadline to let the chef know I was turning in a review, only to be told the entire kitchen staff was about to walk out. I've visited restaurants that have changed hands -- and cuisines -- between my first and second trips. I've written a scathing review that had to be shelved at the last minute because the restaurant closed down the day after my last meal there.
But with Due Rose, sadly, there was nothing to do but wait.
The blaze started late in the morning on December 31, says chef-owner Pedro Canjura, shutting the place down just before one of the busiest restaurant days of the year. It was limited to the kitchen, but extensive smoke damage kept Due Rose under renovation for almost three months. Canjura was finally able to reopen in late March, just in time for the Italian eatery's first anniversary.
I have no idea what Ristorante Due Rose looked like before the fire. Now, however, it looks just like what you'd expect of the whip-crack end of a strip mall. With green carpet underfoot, white walls and white lights above, and a mix of booths and tablecloth-clad tables in between, Due Rose is homier than a Sizzler and blander than a Lalime's or a Rivoli. But the revamped kitchen, which you can see beyond the water-and-coffee station, appears as spotless and tricked-out as any chef could hope for. The stainless steel seemed to attract a congregation of cooks and waiters who were talking to each other -- a good sign. And in normal voices, not yells and pouts.
But they weren't spending so much time jawing that they couldn't make it out to the tables. They were on -- timing the courses right and checking in with a low-key friendliness that plays well in a neighborhood restaurant. One night's request for a light red that would go with prawns and chicken landed us a bottle of a jammy and robust Sicilian wine that should only be drunk with salami. It was clearly the waiter's favorite, but he could have benefited from a little wine education. Otherwise, the service fit Due Rose's ambience, casual but not carefree.
Watch yourself with the fresh-from-the-oven bread, or you won't save room for dessert. Even a couple of carbophobes in my party found themselves dredging chunk after chunk in a pond of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Chef Canjura spent a dozen years cooking for Il Fornaio in San Francisco and Walnut Creek, where he learned the secret of baking soft white rolls with a glossy, papery crust, as well as focaccia squares that had been oiled just right, so that the dough pulls apart like chocolate cake and the bottom develops a crisp honeycomb of bubbles. The waiters -- those enablers -- don't stint on the bread, either, bringing extra baskets without seeing whether you should have any more.
How did you decide to open in Pinole? I asked Canjura later. "I used to live around here," he told me. "My family liked to go eat out, but there was nothing but junk food. The city's growing up, and there's nothing good to eat out here." The success of the two-year-old Pear Street Bistro has proved that the city is ready for more than Carl's Jr., and Canjura was happy to oblige.
Due Rose's menu is well suited for the location: priced high enough for the chef to afford good ingredients, yet inexpensive enough to appeal to families -- entrée prices top out at $17, and many of the pastas cost less than $12. The portions can't be faulted, either. And the food comes from all over the boot, reworked for Californian tastes. It may not hit the heights promised by the bread, but it's lively, homey, and often quite good.
The salads -- one a toss-up of pear, romaine, and crumbled blue cheese; another, the "Insalata Due Rose," an Italianesque chopped salad of romaine, cheese, onions, salami, and mushrooms -- were dressed in robust vinaigrettes. And a spinach salad with aged ricotta and toasted walnuts was just an excuse to eat lots of applewood-smoked bacon, coated in a brunchworthy dressing made with bacon fat.
The massive antipasto platter, enough for three or four people, featured small amounts of many of the appetizers on the dinner menu, plus grilled asparagus, sliced salami, and olives. Two of the antipasti should have stayed in hibernation until July -- the prosciutto twisted around melon slices and the insalata caprese, stacks of fresh mozzarella, tomato, and whole basil leaves. Despite the quality of the other ingredients, both dishes are a wash unless they're made with summer-ripe fruit. But a vivid vinaigrette and a shot of garlic compensated for the springtime deficiencies of chopped-tomato bruschetta.
As with the bread, Canjura makes his own pastas and pizza dough. The pizzas are rolled out to the size and thinness of a china plate, and they come out of the oven airy and crackling. His ravioli con carciofi might not look abundant -- a handful of pasta squares spreading out over the plate -- but their aromatic filling of artichokes, ricotta, onions, and thyme was complex and satisfying, and blended beautifully with a wash of nutty brown butter. Only a dish of conchiglie al pollo, shells with grilled chicken and vegetables in a sun-dried tomato and white wine sauce, lacked vigor. Or cheese. I couldn't tell which.
More-substantial entrées didn't come off quite as successfully. One night's special -- they change weekly -- a fillet of basa fish, had been slightly overcooked, and its lemon-caper sauce was not particularly dramatic. Jumbo prawns as big as langoustines also arrived a little tough, though their flavor was hearty enough to warrant their Friulian brandy-mustard cream sauce, which bespoke that region's proximity to Slovenia and Austria.
Desserts include a potent tiramisu, in which brandy-and-coffee-soaked ladyfingers perfume a mountain of whipped cream and zabaglione. A thick wedge of flourless chocolate cake is bound to appeal to chocoholics, who get their fix wherever and whenever they can, but everyone else might find it cold and dense. But Canjura's zabaglione, lighter than shaving cream and much tastier, was so good it had my carb-hating friends batting away my spoon to poke through the whipped fluff for the strawberries and peach sorbet at the bottom.
Four weeks after its three-month hiatus, Due Rose is still a little wobbly, but is happily back on its feet. And, as the crowded tables attest, nobody in Pinole has begrudged Canjura and Co. the wait.
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