Where Small Is Beautiful 

Oakland's Dopo proves the best things can come in small packages.

If freedom of choice is the opiate of the masses, a glance at Dopo's diminutive menu might send you into withdrawal -- until you take your first bite.

Compare the new restaurant's five-by-eight card of daily offerings to the massive menu at Denny's, where you could spend hours dawdling over breakfast platters alone. Such variety almost deadens you to the fact that what you receive will be stupefyingly bland.

Dopo, by contrast, presents a meager fourteen options: five appetizers, three pastas, and six pizzas, and that's if they're feeling generous. The menu takes twenty seconds to memorize. Wait, no -- the back of the card lists twenty-some Italian reds and whites. Okay, a half-minute, tops. And after one meal of the finely crafted seasonal Californian cuisine, you'll realize that it's impossible to find a bad dish.

A couple of months ago, Oliveto veterans Jon Smulewitz (former cook) and Adam Bruss (former wine buyer) opened Dopo on the eastern edge of Oakland's Piedmont Avenue strip. "We'd been talking about opening up a small place for years," Smulewitz says, "and we had the same concept in mind: using great products, keeping it simple, and keeping prices down."

And so they have. The menu changes daily, as the chefs bring in new ingredients and combine them, Iron Chef-style, into very different dishes. For example, on my first visit, Smulewitz had clearly bought a case or two of fall finds like chanterelles, leeks, arugula, and walnuts, supplemented by fresh herbs and a batch of housemade sausage.

The arugula showed up raw, in a simple green salad, and cooked, on one of the pizzas (with prosciutto, a tough combination to pass over) and in the ricotta-and-arugula tortolloni. The aroma of the peppery, almost sensually biting green -- just a little painful, but the right kind of pain -- filled the mouth, tempered by the richness of the cheese and a toss in butter and walnuts. The dumplings were constructed of the thinnest layer of fresh pasta, just chewy enough to let you know that it's there.

White beans, stewed with a few aromatics and pancetta and just enough rosemary to tickle the nose (not tweak it), were crowned with a cookie-size coil of skinny, pan-roasted housemade Calabrian sausage flavored with parmesan and Calabrian chiles. The same sausage, left loose, made it into the bolognese sauce on the day's lasagna and on one of the pizzas, paired with winter greens, something with a little kick.

I'll get back to the pizza in a second, after I mention the crostone appetizer, thick slices of country-style bread doused with a fragrant olive oil and roasted until the edges blackened. On top rested small pink prawns curled up like rosebuds, just scooped from the poaching water so they were still warm and ethereally soft. Then the cooks drizzled over top a mint salsa verde -- not the Mexican sauce, the Italian one (usually puréed parsley, anchovies, capers, and herbs). Its heady fragrance came close to overwhelming the shrimp -- but didn't.

Not that I couldn't, and don't, eat the worst kind of pizza three or four days of the week, but Dopo's twelve-inch pizzas were perfectly constructed. The glistening, oil-brushed crust bubbled and puffed around the edges just enough to trap air bubbles. It crunched around the edges and remained intact in the center, especially since the pie wasn't overloaded with goopy ingredients. And the cheese mix spread over the top was sharp enough to have some character of its own, instead of tasting like molding putty. In fact, the cheeses made the simplest pizza of the lot, the Pizza Dopo -- just anchovies and pepper flakes -- as much of a joy to eat as the more elegant, complicated pies.

On the way back from my first visit, my roommate started a fight. I loved my meal, I said. "It was okay," he said. "Everything was good, but it was hardly on the scale of Chez Panisse."

My point exactly. Looking at the technique behind each dish, not at the garnishes or the menu descriptions, each of the simple, straightforward dishes succeeded. From the seasoning in the beans to the crust on the pizza, each piece of each item was constructed perfectly, put together thoughtfully, and pleasurable to eat. In fact, though each item cost less than $12, we kept ordering more food and wine -- it's amazing how many wines you can order by the glass when every bottle looks appetizing -- and eventually racked up a tab of $35 a person.

David seemed excited enough to come back with me for visit two, and we scored one of the two windowfront tables. There isn't space in the packed little space for more than thirty people, and that includes the folks standing around waiting for a seat. Dopo has a solid, casual feel, with a few photographs mounted on walls the color of aged parmesan, and Teutonically sturdy wood tables. More than in most restaurants, you get the feeling that you're sitting in the owner's kitchen. You can even take a closer look at the duo of cooks behind the line if you sit at the bar overseeing the pantry station. (However, the stove fans can make for a little noise -- one dining companion suggested acoustic ceiling tiles.) The servers and busers know what they're doing, too, but have received strict instructions to enhance the neighborhood, drop-in-anytime feel of the place.

If, like me, you couldn't decide between appetizers, you can order an antipasto platter that includes three. On our first visit, we received small portions of the sausage and beans, the shrimp crostone, and a butterflied sardine smothered in an agrodolce salsa of sweet pickled onions, roasted pine nuts, and currants, which tamed the fishy flavor of the sardine without covering it up. On visit two, the butterflied fish was broiled with a buttery topping of breadcrumbs, parsley, and pine nuts, bringing out an entirely different side of its character. The crostone of the day was slathered with a pork stew with rosemary and green olives that tasted like a mother's love, and finished with a shower of salty (aged) ricotta salata.

The third appetizer was a thin slab of big-eye tuna, touched to the pan for just long enough to sear the edges and leave the center pink but not raw. The only thing on top was a tangle of watercress dressed in a red-wine vinaigrette. Whoever realized that there was enough lemon and pepper in the watercress to set off the meaty tuna perfectly has earned my undying affection. It more than compensated for the lasagna Napolitano, layers of spinach pasta, cheese, and loose sausage in a chunky tomato sauce, which instead of being extraordinary was merely good.

Desserts hit about the same heights as the lasagna, which is understandable given the lack of a pastry cook -- it's hard to do more than crisps, cakes, and custards when there are just two of you working in a tiny kitchen. A small crock of buttermilk panna cotta with fresh raspberries was creamy and pleasant, and I enjoyed the combination of perfectly poached pear (not too crunchy, not too mushy), mascarpone, and crumbled biscotti, though I would have preferred a more flavorful poaching liquid -- a little spice, say, or a little honey, to intensify its flavor.

I have the feeling that after the first round of reviews come out, getting a seat at Dopo is going to take baksheesh, connections, or Zen-like patience. In fact, I hear rumors that a certain neighborhood favorite down the strip is already shvitzing about the new competition -- and responding by adding items to its menu.


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