Warm lamb’s tongue and potato salad.
Whole-wheat crust pizza with pancetta, onion, and broccoli.
Tortelli of artichoke and pecorino cheese.
Salt-roasted pigeon: before.
The salt pigeon after, with giblet spiedino, farro, and polpette-stuffed artichoke.
Rhubarb compote with frozen framboise mousse.
Predecessors. Big shoes to fill. Legacies. Nope, it’s never light stuff. So when chef Paul Canales left his post as executive chef of ~OLIVETO~ after six years (he was at the restaurant for 15 years altogether), and it was announced Jonah Rhodehamel was taking the helm, I was like, good luck, kid—you’ve got some big boots to saddle up in. And I gotta hand it to him—it’s been six months, and he and his crew are doing a bang-up job at this classic East Bay Italian establishment.
Both diners and chefs can agree: springtime menus rock the house. Chefs get fired up to leave root vegetables behind, and diners reap the rewards. Oliveto’s menu was popping with fava beans, a springtime fritto misto, English peas, asparagus, nettles, artichokes, and there was even a fluke crudo with strawberry.
All you have to do is put “while available” next to an item and my flash sale mentality kicks in like it’s a handbag on Gilt: get it! I beelined right for the warm lamb’s tongue salad ($13) and potato salad (which really should have read “salad” or just “potatoes”) with fennel purée and mint salsa verde. The potato halves were a bit undersalted, but once that was rectified with a sprinkle from the salt bowl on the table—thank you for setting the table with it—all the flavors on the plate totally sang, even though that lamb never will again. (Sorry, was that too dark? Well, it’s not like your kids are reading this.)
I also tried the charcoal-grilled sardine ($12) over a bed of farro, with grilled ramps, and romesco sauce (such harmonious flavors together). It was served head-on, and looked like a cruise missile—headed straight for my mouth. Grilled sardines—is there anything better? This one was cooked perfectly, and the lightly smoky taste always takes me immediately to my Greek vacation when I was 28 and island hopping on my own in the Cyclades. Good times.
Owner Bob Klein is totally gung-ho on his California-grown, whole-grain project (Community Grains), and insisted on sending up one of the whole-grain pizzas from the café downstairs. A far cry from white 00 flour, but I really dug this as a different animal entirely—it had a thin and crisp crust, with an earthy and fuller flavor that was well-matched with the pancetta, red onion, and broccoli ($15.50). Couldn’t help but think how good the crust will be with their breakfast pizza, with pancetta and a farm egg on top, heh.
So, back to the dining room menu: it’s pasta time (my favorite time). While I didn’t saddle up for the penne or pappardelle made with durum wheat (didn’t want the hippie 510 tide to entirely sweep me out to a sea of whole grains), the saffron chitarra ($16) with a ragu of tender squid and hot pepper felt very Southern Italian, all spicy-salty-fishy in an entirely good way. It was a seductive pasta—as were the tortelli of artichoke ($16) with pecorino cheese. They were beautifully made, and a bit decadent, although I found the accompanying artichoke chips to be distracting from the supple texture of the pasta.
Since we’re in handmade pasta territory, don’t expect a big heaping plate like mamma would serve you. You can spend another $5 for a “fuller serving”—and since you’re already here and spending some cash, I say do it. Consider it a courtesy to your table mates so they don’t have to hear you complain about the portion size—especially after they ask for a bite.
Since I’m such a polenta lover, I had to try the Red Flint polenta with ragu of lamb’s heart ($13)—I know, I’m taking that lamb down part by part. The polenta cooks for three hours. It had a speckled appearance (it’s from red corn) and had a very full, rich flavor—can you believe the thinly sliced heart was almost too subtle against the polenta? That polenta means bizness.
Meaty mains start at $25 for a roast hen rolata, and climb to $38 for dry-aged Piemontese rib-eye. Kudos for the interesting-sounding vegetarian dish, an involtino of chard and farro with asparagus, almonds, artichokes, and pecorino cheese fonduta. I almost went there, until I espied the whole salt-roasted pigeon ($33) with giblet spiedino (on rosemary sprigs), farro, and polpette-stuffed artichokes. Oh hell yes.
What a dish—they even bring it by the table to show you the before (when it’s mummified in its salty casing, looking a bit like Mork from Ork), and then it’s presented spatchcocked on the plate, the feet daintily crossed, just as a ladylike pigeon should. It was juicy and so flavorful, with a rich reduction on the plate—lending a smokiness to the farro—and the polpette-stuffed artichoke heart was a delightful morsel (the menu promised artichokes, but alas, there was only one). The dish had great rusticity but refinement as well.
We also had a juicy spit-roasted pork leg ($28), served with a (somewhat sloppy) side salad of arugula, pickled green strawberries, and batons of celery root. For that price, I almost would have liked to see a different side dish—the pigeon presentation definitely felt more generous and grand, and I ultimately thought the pork was a better dish to share than to just have on its own.
The desserts by Jenny Raven caught my eye—almost all of them sounded fresh and springy. The rhubarb compote with frozen framboise mousse ($8.50) had a light touch and was a perfect finish to a feast. There was also a semifreddo of espresso-grappa mousse, lemon cream, and sponge cake that was more like a tirasmisù, but the slice struck me as a wee bit shrimpy for $8. You know a dessert was good when you’re bummed the serving seemed small, right?
I’m looking forward to seeing how the annual dinners take shape, from the oceanic dinners to the truffle dinners, and of course, the whole hog dinners. The place is ingredient obsessed, as the long list of purveyors along the side of the menu proudly declares. And they definitely like to celebrate producers here—sign up for their newsletter for updates on the farms and seasonal products they like to highlight.
Fans of Italian wines will have fun exploring the list—which interestingly includes eight sparkling Italian wines—but it’s supplemented with French and domestic wines as well. And I appreciated the section designations, like “Medium-Bodied Red Wines in Neutral Wood,” which is where our enjoyable (and very food-friendly) bottle of Etna Rosso, “Outis,” Biondi, Sicily 2007 ($70) hailed from. Like Ippuku, Oliveto is such a quick BART ride over, with the Rockridge station literally a quick stumble across the street, so drink up, matey.
The upstairs dining room is simply decorated, both calming and comfortable—interestingly saw quite a few tables of men dining together and double dates, while solo diners can find a spot at a smooth granite counter. The crowd skews a bit on the older side, but isn’t entirely made up of AARP subscribers. Part of it is due to the price point, which isn’t at a midweek “let’s just get a bite to eat” kind of level (well, for me at least), but that’s what the casual downstairs café is for, whether you want a plate of their housemade salumi and a glass of vino, or a dinner of pasta and/or pizza. I swung by for a little pre-dinner shot of espresso downstairs, and was treated with the same warmth and attentiveness as upstairs. Oliveto understands the little things are the big things.