Di Bartolo Aims High 

From cafe to Grand Lake hotspot, Oakland eatery aspires to be the next Delfina.

On a street thick with nail salons, insurance agents, and panhandlers, Di Bartolo wears its urban modern like an art gallery. There's craggy brick, a cement floor stained black, chalk-white walls, and the exposed kitchen's all-white tile and gleaming stainless. It's as deconstructed as restaurant decor ever gets. Especially here in Oakland.

In this room of hard surfaces, Di Bartolo's warm, Mediterranean-shaded food feels like a rush of warm air. Not bad for a place linked to a cafe that conjures up soy lattes, bagels, and sandwiches shaggy with sprouts.

Di Bartolo, the restaurant, opened just ten weeks ago, some ten years after Cafe di Bartolo steamed up its first macchiato next door. For years, owner John di Bartolo dreamed of launching a serious restaurant — some place like Delfina or A16, the San Francisco hotspots that redefined regional Italian in the Bay Area. He teamed up with developer Richard Weinstein to turn a former educational bookstore into what's now the hippest restaurant space in Grand Lake.

Di Bartolo hired William Bishop, a manager with experience gleaned in places like Frisson and Elisabeth Daniel. After a little more than two months Di Bartolo's chef, Jason Wheeler, is already evolving a style as distinctive as the local crowd willing to wait for a table in the restaurant's jammed back bar. With a no-reservations policy, the waits can be long, but at least the cocktails are good — especially the lime-and-cardamom-spiked gimlet.

About time this diverse and bustling neighborhood had a restaurant that captured the same whiff of urban flavor you can catch Saturday mornings at the nearby Grand Lake farmers' market.

Wheeler knows how to navigate the dark side, the tastes at the junction of sweet, sour, and bitter. It's a place that can trip up greater chefs, the challenge of balancing fruit and vinegar and the tannic burr that haunts charred foods, without skewing anything so badly it makes you reach for your water glass.

The kitchen worked it out beautifully in the grilled Frog Hollow peach with herbed mascarpone, one of the best dishes I tried. Peach quarters were blacker and squishier than you'd think. The pulpy flesh had the faint bitterness that shades all stone fruits, smoke from the grill, and a muted breath of sweet-tart from reduced balsamic vinegar. A pile of barely dressed greens was basically useless. But, like cream-cheese icing on a block of carrot cake, the spoonful of herb-flecked mascarpone made you want to squeegee up the last traces off the plate with your finger.

Eggplant caponata and goat-cheese salad got down into that dark place almost as skillfully as the grilled peach did. It's one of the most refined-looking caponatas you'll encounter on a restaurant plate, a minuscule dice of sautéed eggplant and peppers, whole pine nuts, and big, moist raisins, all tamped into a drum shape. It rested on a roasted pepper vinaigrette mild enough to seem like straight-up puree. But the goat cheese — softened with olive oil and pressed into its own drum shape — had enough tang to balance the caponata's syrupy balsamic glow.

You've got to hand it to any kitchen that can take something with a name as potentially boring as "warm summer squash with herbed chevre" and wring something sexy from it. But the kitchen made every part of this dish shine with personality. Even the squash, a piece of hollowed-out yellow patty pan carbonized on the grill, turned into a delectable chunk of sweet and smoky. And its sauce, roasted pepper studded with buttery-tasting pine nuts, had the lovely sweet-sour balance Wheeler's kitchen knows how to nail down.

Wheeler learned his way around a kitchen in the Kuleto's stable of San Francisco restaurants. Heavy on the pizzas and grilled dishes, these places married California and Mediterranean in a way that feels like a bona fide regional style. As such, a dish like Di Bartolo's ahi tuna tartare with gingery mango-cucumber relish can feel a little textbook. Pristine cubes of tender flesh, crisp cucumber, and sweet fruit mixed it up in a martini glass. Not bad, just not terribly interesting.

Same with the half-dozen thin-crust pizzas. They sear in a Wood Stone oven, a gas-fired oven shaped like a wood-burning one. It's a decent crust: thin, chewy, even crisp in places. A corn and caramelized-onion pizza had a chewy, russet-colored cap of smoked mozzarella, monster corn nuggets, and an amiable oniony sweetness. A pizza with melted leeks, seared crimini mushrooms, and a couple of eggs baked on top showed more personality — chewy mushrooms and just-set eggs with a delicate softness. Still, true thin-crust epiphany is something you'd do better to seek elsewhere.

The kitchen stumbles in places you don't expect. An heirloom tomato salad with an asterisk that let us know the kitchen sourced the tomatoes from the Grand Lake farmers' market set up expectations of a Chez Panisse-style orgy of the abundant, the gorgeous, and the pure. But the single variety of tomato that showed up here was slushy, watery, and way too cold.

Seafood à la plancha, an entrée, had a character deficit that proved fatal. A shallow cast-iron skillet held mussels, Manila clams, prawns, peas, and potato wedges, all blasted in the pizza oven. On their own, the elements were fine. But a scant saffron-and-anisette-tinged sauce kept to the bottom of the skillet like a shy guest reluctant to mingle. It was a dish the kitchen needed to keep tasting and refining before floating it on the menu.

Good thing entrées like pan-seared corvina come with garnishes that let Wheeler explore the lush margins of the Mediterranean. The fish itself was crispy, with luxuriously oily flesh. But the spark was mostly underneath: a smoky, vinegary tomato sauce flecked with bits of grilled skin, and soft cannellini bean and fennel stew. Grilled pork loin had the uniformly pink, moist texture that comes from brine-curing. Again, the accompaniments — a crisp polenta powder puff, bracingly bitter wilted greens, and lush fig jam — carried the dish.

Not everything here is so accomplished. Some of the waiters seemed inexperienced. On both visits our bar orders lagged, even when we'd asked our server for a glass of wine, something that doesn't require muddling or shaking. On one visit the server kept approaching the table awkwardly, as if he never knew quite how to interrupt a conversation. On a second visit the buser couldn't get the hang of when to clear. Finally, he told us just to flag him when we wanted a plate to go away. To be like Delfina, John Di Bartolo's restaurant has a little coming up to do.


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