Taste of Firenze 

Berkeley's rustic Corso offers simple, soulful Italian.

The cooking of Tuscany and its capital, Florence, has always been known for its simplicity, its freshness, its dedication to impeccable raw ingredients. Sound familiar? The antecedents of Chez Panisse-ian California cuisine may indeed be found in Renaissance-era Firenze, home of the first modern cooking school as well as an enviable abundance of produce, cheeses, olive oil, and game ... and the culinary wherewithal to let their flavors shine, sauces and folderol be damned. The excesses of a Bolognese involtini alla cacciatore or a Genovese breast of veal stuffed with sweetbreads, pistachios, and hard-boiled eggs aren't for Florentines; Italy's most simple soulful cookery is sustenance enough.

At Corso, a six-month-old trattoria located along the trendy part of Shattuck Avenue, the deeply delectable cuisine of Florence is celebrated in a cozy, friendly, molto Italiano setting. The small, spare dining room is decorated with framed menus from the old country; counter seating overlooks a big bustling kitchen limned in steaming saucepans, well-thumbed cookbooks, and the aroma of fennel, shallots, truffles, and olive oil; a big communal table invites friend and stranger alike to break bread and pass the Chianti in true Tuscan fashion. It's the brainchild of Wendy Brucker and Roscoe Skipper, owners/operators of Rivoli, a Solano Avenue eatery with a menu of French-Italian soul food that has been making diners swoon for more than a decade. With Corso, they and chef de cuisine Rodrigo da Silva have concentrated their energies on the rustic fare of Florence. It's a cuisine ideally suited to the holiday season: soul-warming comfort food best shared with friends and family in a convivial setting.

Take the house polenta, a warm, soft, absolutely endorphic example of the genre. A golden crust encloses a creamy interior of cornmeal purée enhanced with lush mascarpone and a snarky suggestion of aged parmesan: yum. Another contorno (side dish), verdure arrostito, celebrates the season with a trio of autumnal flavors — parsnips, turnips, and butternut squash — showcased against a subtle backdrop of herb and spice. And the zuppa del giorno we sampled was a traditional Portuguese caldo verde, a holiday unto itself, a thick, hearty country chowder of mashed potatoes, mustard greens, smoky ham, and garlic sure to soothe the inner Grinch.

Two starters are a bit more refined but equally satisfying. The crostini trio features an eclectic trifecta of extra-large canapés: a creamy, delicate mousse of lobster, leeks, and mascarpone cheese; a subtly sweet amalgam of buttery crescenza and fresh quince; a shmear of good old chicken liver pâté. The tonno crudo is a rich, luscious hillock of raw ahi dressed in lemon juice, shallots, and chili oil: a delicate yet peppery palate-cleanser especially tasty piled on fennel-seed toast rounds. Another good meal-opener is the lattuaga Romana, a lighter variation on Caesar salad with a nice zesty dressing and an unfortunate dearth of anchovies and croutons.

Among the entrées is an ever-changing selection of thin-crust pizzas. The mushroom pie was rich and earthy, with a fragrance of white truffle oil rising from the platter and fontina and piave cheeses forming a sweet, pungent foundation atop the chewy crust. The panzotti (stuffed pasta) was more about texture than flavor, its filling of puréed butternut squash not as memorable as its crepelike casing (although the fried sage leaves and crunchy walnuts offered nice robust accents). A better pasta-course option was the papardelle, a rustic platter of wide egg noodles tossed with a rich, earthy ragout of braised Sonoma duck and snappy Gaeta olives. Braciola, the classic Italian grilled-meat dish, gets the robust American treatment here, with a thick Niman Ranch bone-in pork loin subbing for the thin slices of beef. The fat-ribboned pigmeat was as rich and juicy as a good porterhouse, and caramelized onions added a sweet and spiky afterbite.

Desserts didn't achieve the high standards of the savory dishes. The pera arrosto (poached pear) was a bit underdone and on the unexciting side despite its gingery raisin-wine broth. The budino (flourless chocolate cake) was perfectly adequate, thick and moist with a suggestion of buttery caramel, just nothing phenomenal. Our favorite sweet was the torta al limone, a lighter variation on pound cake with a marvelous lemony flavor, a dollop of whipped mascarpone, and the subtle fragrance of extra-virgin Frantoio di Sommaia olive oil.

There are several vegetarian-friendly options on the menu. Begin with the insalata mista or an antipasti platter of garlicky olives and fresh mozzarella with roasted peppers and pesto. Gnocchi with chanterelles or the butternut squash ravioli make fine entrées, as does one of the thin-crusted pizzas. Meat-free complements include the polenta, the roasted autumn vegetables, sautéed spinach with garlic, and grilled broccoli rabe with saba nuts.

Corso's impressive wine list is unblemished by vintages out of France, Spain, Australia, or (gasp!) California: it's all Italian, all the time. The eighty bottles are classified by region, with Tuscany's Chiantis well represented along with Piemontese Barolos, Neapolitan Aglianicos, and everything in between. Most are in the $20-$50 range, and nineteen are available by the glass, the half-glass, the pint carafe, or the taste, which gives you the opportunity to sample a few before committing to a bottle. There's also a full bar skilled at the process of mixing and serving unique cocktails; the Limonata Italiana is a refreshing, pleasantly citrusy bracer, with Svedka vodka jazzing up an almost effervescent housemade limoncello, and the Pisco Italia combines Peruvian grape brandy with sweet basil syrup to splendid and nearly hallucinogenic effect. The watery house mojito was a disappointment — more mint, lime, and rum would've been nice — but the house Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda, a taste worth cultivating) brought back happy memories of a little standup bar an ocean and a continent away. Corso is adept at evoking such memories.


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