Dine About Oakland: BellanicoJanuary 8, 2009
We took an adventure a few weekends ago and went off in search of the quintessential neighborhood restaurant for a Friday night date. We don’t really have any true neighborhood spots for dinner in our neck of the woods; Dopo started out with that in mind, but quickly became destination dining, so the wait is insane now. Instead, we decided to take a trip to sleepy little Glenview.
…or at least, we thought Glenview would be sleepy. Turns out it’s been discovered! There are now not one but two upscale Italian spots there, Bellanico and newcomer Marzano, child of Garibaldi’s. We tried for Marzano first, but the wait was over an hour. (The next weekend, we tried again when a friend wanted Italian—two hours. For real. I mean, I know it’s new and all, but it’s not like it’s Dopo or anything—or is it? Hey Glenview! Welcome to our world!)
So instead, we found ourselves at Bellanico, which really was a neighborhood spot. The space is very sweet, tucked into a storefront with a bench for waiting outside. It took a little over half an hour for a table to free up, which wasn’t bad at all; the owner came out and offered us wine a couple of times, though we opted to wait for our meal.
We had a great table with a view of everything going on—the bar, the diners around us. The meal started off with a small plate of focaccia and dipping sauce—points from me, thumbs down from D., who really really hates focaccia. Luckily, he was content with his beer as a starter. I had a wine flight alongside my meal, which was wonderful—it was the perfect combination and price point for the wines, letting me try some tastes of higher end goodness that I’d rarely commit to a full glass of. We started with the salt cod, potato, and almond fritto, which was decked out in garlic sauce with dino kale. Salt cod fritters seem to be “in,” and we’ve now tried them at Camino, Jojo, and Bellanico. I think Bellanico’s were actually my favorite, though; meatier, but still crispy.
In classic Italian tradition, we followed the menu on to the primi course: swiss chard malfatti with brown butter and sage. Now, even as the waitress described these I could see D. groaning—malfatti are small gnocchi-like dumplings that are rumored to have been invented by someone who needed to use up extra ravioli filling. My eyes lit up. His fell (he hates squishy foods). We got them anyway; they were tasty, but a bit lighter than even I’d expected. Definitely not a main course, but neither were they billed that way.
On to secondi, which D. got to choose after being thwarted on two of the first three plates. We got the grilled peppercorn crusted tuna, which came with a pomegranate-olive-almond-white bean sauce of sorts. It was excellent—and a huge steak of tuna, more than we could finish even between the two of us. (Side note: I read recently about local restaurants bemoaning the “non’trée,” where diners share courses rather than ordering their own due to the recession. I laughed, because we’ve always done this. It’ s not because we’re cheap—it’s because we’re small, and could never finish off an appetizer and entrée each, at least not with room for drinks and dessert too. We do sometimes order more anyway if it’s someplace where the food makes an easy lunch for the next day, but most of the nicer Bay Area restaurants aren’t in that category. Reheated salt cod fritters? Not so much.)
In spite of feeling stuffed, I insisted that we order dessert—everything sounded tasty, and I wanted to try something out. That was a mistake, unfortunately. We ordered the bomboloni and a cappuccino. I’m not exactly sure what bomboloni, small Italian doughnuts, are supposed to be like, but these were extremely dense and heavy—not at all our style. We’re planning to try them out at Marzano one of these days and do a side-by-side—maybe we just don’t like the dish, but they looked like they ought to have been light and airy rather than doughy. The cappuccino was also not so hot (and I don’t say that lightly—I know we’re coffee snobs, but I lived on the East Coast for a long time, so I’m pretty tolerant of not-perfect coffee). I have no issue with restaurants that don’t serve espresso drinks. If you can’t make a mean cappuccino, don’t make one at all. The problem, I think, is that people have come to expect espresso drinks as options everywhere they go (and have gotten used to tolerating very mediocre cappuccinos and lattes). If you’re not sure what a good cappuccino tastes like, try one out at Blue Bottle’s stand at the Temescal Farmer’s Market next time you’re there. I’d much rather see restaurants simply offer very solid drip coffee and an assortment of tea and call it a day.
As we headed home, D. and I debated whether we’d be back. He’d rather wait the extra hour, pay the extra $20, and go to Dopo or Pizzaiolo. I liked Bellanico, though—my meal was lovely, dessert aside. More importantly, though, if it had been even better, I’d wager that it would also have been even more expensive with an even longer wait. If I lived nearby, I’d be excited to have a place like Bellanico in walking distance. There’s a lot to be said for neighborhood spots that are able to stay neighborhood spots. I can go lots of places for trendy, but there aren’t too many places where I can walk in, not wait too long, have a solid meal, and feel I didn’t overpay for the privilege. Bellanico fills that niche, and that’s a good thing. I only wish we had a spot like that on Piedmont or Auto Row.
Update, 03/16/09: We made an unexpected, but wonderful, repeat visit to Bellanico on a recent Sunday night and were delighted to find that our experience far exceeded our January visit there. The fried chard stems, warm beet and farro salad, cacao-encrusted bluenose bass with sunchoke and cauliflower puree, and the gorgonzola flan with asparagus were all outstanding. A friend we were with decided to try the bomboloni in spite of our last experience with them, and they were infinitely better with no doughy centers (though still not quite up to Marzano’s light, airy version), so something must have gone amiss with the prep the last time we tried them. I had the chocolate date pudding cake with ice cream, though, which was fabulous and renewed my faith in their desserts. We didn’t, however, push it so far as to try the cappuccino again—next time (and even D. concurs there will certainly be one!)