Caffe Venezia doesn't look a whole lot like the Venezia I know from old I Spy reruns or the one sensory-expanding week I spent there a decade ago, but I like the look of it anyway. Instead of narrow alleyways and gondolas and canals (admittedly a difficult design option to accomplish in downtown Berkeley) we have a pretty fair replica of New Orleans Square in Disneyland: wrought-iron balconies, red-tile awnings, forest-green shutters against sponged-peach adobe, even clotheslines draped with laundry that changes with the season. There's also a burbling stone fountain, colorful facsimiles of Old World storefronts, and, adding a bit of verisimilitude, the city's Piazza San Marco, complete with (the original) Campanile.
Caffe Venezia has been serving up family-friendly cuisine in the same quasi-autentico atmosphere since 1980, when its menu of light, fresh Northern Italian specialties was a pleasant change from the meatball-and-Chianti fare then common around the Bay Area. In 2004 the menu got a new-millennium overhaul after original owners John and Lois Solomon retired, turning the place over to managers Jeff Wizig and Roger Feuer and longtime executive chef Cindy Deetz. (Deetz had been a pasta-maker, line chef, and chef at both Caffe Venezia and its sister operation, Ristorante Venezia, off and on since 1983 before assuming her current role in 1998.) While many favorites from the old days remain — the fennel-calamari fritto misto, the spiky house salad, the almond torte with raspberry preserves — the new bill of fare is more refined and inventive.
We began with drinks in the cocktail lounge near the entrance, a cozy nook with strings of bubble lights, an Italian-villa ambience, and comfortable armchairs. The best sipping option is the Hendrick's Cetriolo, a bright, refreshing cooler touched with orange bitters, St. Germain elderberry, and the rose-and-cucumber essence of Hendrick's gin. The Pomegranate Twist, a blend of Bacardi Limón, lemon juice, and pomegranate, was on the saccharine side, but our Manhattan was robust, soul-warming, and well-spiked with Old Overholt rye. (The fifteen-minute wait between order and delivery was a new record for us, however.)
White truffle oil is a running theme throughout the Caffe Venezia menu, and two appetizers make good use of the condiment's sweet, earthy flavor. The white-truffle deviled eggs have an unusual depth and richness and a luscious texture accented with crisply fried shallots and bull's-blood beet sprouts. The house-made potato chips were not unlike Kettle Chips with a touch of truffle essence and several ounces of fresh Reggiano sprinkled on top, and what's wrong with that? No truffle oil was used in the crafting of the baked gnocchi, which were nevertheless dressed in a perfectly delicious sage cream sauce, which helped detract from the dumplings' heavy, chewy consistency. Our favorite starter, though, was the bruschetta. Distinct from the run-of-the-mill tomato-and-garlic variety, the house version combines San Daniele prosciutto, tangy goat cheese, fried shallots, and a touch of lavender honey atop rounds of toasted bread, resulting in a sweet, salty, creamy, crunchy, mouth-filling snack.
Caffe Venezia has always been known for its handcrafted pastas, and two items on the current menu are well worth ordering. The arugula fettuce (a broader version of fettuccine) is a hearty, rustic platter of al dente noodles, buttery gold chanterelles, lots of nutty Reggiano and a light, simple sauce redolent of Madeira wine and more of that earthy truffle oil. The ravioli is even better: Thick casings of pasta stuffed with a lusty, bittersweet filling of grilled radicchio, Sicilian olives, and snarky-sweet Toma cheese are drizzled with pine nut-infused butter and draped with slender stalks of asparagus. Another entrée, the wild Atlantic salmon, was moist, tender, and perfectly grilled, its supple flavor nicely accented with baby greens ribboned with capers, olives, and bits of pungent cauliflower: an unusual and ultimately delectable rendition. And the grilled lamb loin chops yielded lots of smoky, tender meat, while the brightly flavored mint-walnut pesto alongside offered a nice change from the usual mint jelly. (The accompanying grilled artichoke was tough and unyielding, however.)
Mud pie is my favorite dessert, hard to find and easy to screw up, so I was pleased to see it (in Old Country guise) on the dessert menu. The house torta gelato piles excellent high-octane espresso gelato on a rich chocolate cheesecake crust, drizzles it with a thick layer of bittersweet fudge, and crowns the works with toasted almonds and a good half-gallon of cloudlike whipped cream; in other words, they didn't screw it up. Semifreddo ("half-cold" in Italian) is a genre of semi-frozen desserts that might include anything from ice cream cake to chilled custard; Caffe Venezia's interpretation is a light, refreshing, silky-smooth brick of heavy cream, sugar, and ruby-red strawberries with chunks of crunchy almond nougat thrown in for contrast and ballast. The panna cotta, by contrast, was gluey and gummy and rich with gelatin, far from the ethereal alchemy of cream and sugar it should be. But the almond torte is a thick, moist, buttery tea cake with a hint of citrus and the allure of marzipan.
Vegetarians will find plenty to enjoy. Besides the housemade potato chips, the deviled eggs, and the gnocchi, meat-free starters include a vegetarian antipasto platter and a Gorgonzola salad with Fuji apples and walnuts. The pasta course not only features the aforementioned arugula fettuce with chanterelles and the radicchio-filled ravioli with asparagus, there's a spinach-and-zucchini ravioli dish with three kinds of cheese and malfatti with porcini and crimini mushrooms. The menu also features rollatine, fillets of eggplant rolled with ricotta and provolone and baked in tomato sauce.
Caffe Venezia's forty-bottle wine list is primarily Italiano, with a creditable array of Prosecco, Valpolicella, Chianti, and Sangiovese offering an option for every palate and pairing. On Monday nights all bottles of wine are half off, a stellar option when the table's fragrant with pasta, Gorgonzola, and truffle oil, the laughter is loose and genuine, and Venezia is as close as a trompe l'oeil Campanile and unmentionables flapping in the breeze.
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