Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Dish on Dining: Oliveto Café Revisited

Rustic Italian fare in the heart of Rockridge
5655 College Ave., Oakland
PH: 510.547.5356
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

On nice summer days, people like to flock to the outdoor seating area at Oliveto Café, sipping a glass of wine with their pizzas or pasta dishes. And with a prime spot at the base of the Market Hall clock tower, you’re sure to do a lot of people watching as well.

Oliveto has been around for many years, and the upstairs dining room is the standard-bearer for fine dining in Rockridge (along with the other longtime restaurant Citron down the road). Created along the lines of Chez Panisse—that means an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients—Oliveto in recent years has been under the guidance of Executive Chef Paul Canales, who worked many years before as the restaurant’s chef de cuisine.

Similar to Chez Panisse, Oliveto offers formal dining on one level (upstairs) and a casual café with a wood-fire brick oven (downstairs). Last weekend, I decided to have an early dinner at the café with my friends John and Jessie. (Some of you may recall that I’ve been designing John’s Web site. And I’m almost done!)

All the outdoor tables were filled, so we settled for a table near the sun and decided to drown our disappointment with a round of dry martinis. (Yum) The café has a clean, elegant look often accented by a beautiful floral arrangement. The service when we were there were friendly and not at all standoffish.

The café has a limited menu compared to the upstairs dining room (prices also about $5-6 cheaper), and it focuses primarily on simple, Italian dishes. It’s also very kid-friendly with at least a pasta and pizza selection.

We decided to start with the antipasto misto, which was a mixed plate of golden beets, purslane, buffalo mozzarella, toasted almonds and marinated olives. The platter looked beautiful, and everything was simply dressed with either vinegar and olive oil or served naturally. Jessie commented that his yard in San Jose is overrun by purslane, considered a weed and sometimes used as landscaping. So it was interesting to see it being served at Oliveto. (And I’m noticing it on a few other menus around town as well—maybe because it’s so easy to get!)

For our meals, Jessie had the albacore tuna, which was lightly dressed with cherry tomatoes and arugula. John eyed a nearby table’s pasta dish and ordered something similar, the pasta al forno trompetti al ragu. Both of their dishes were perfectly cooked, although Jessie’s tuna dish reminded me of a similar simple tuna dish at Perbacco. (BTW, I learned that Italians like to eat their tuna more on the well done side than rare like the Japanese. Jessie’s tuna was somewhere in between.)

I ordered the arrosto del giorno, or roast of the day, which was a Hoffman Farm hen served with dandelion greens and crispy potatoes. The hen was also perfectly cooked (that became a recurring theme for the expert hand of the chef working that day) with a wonderfully golden brown skin and tender, scrumptious white meat. This was also my first time tasting a Hoffman Farm hen, and I highly recommend you ordering this if you ever see Hoffman Farm as the source for poultry on a menu. I wasn’t a fan of the dandelion greens, however, which were a bit more tough and bitter for my tastes (I would have preferred arugula or even fresh spinach). But I was an instant fan of the crispy potatoes. They were tiny, dice-sized golden brown nuggets of crunch. Again, perfectly cooked.

We ended our meal with a chocolate dessert. It was called a tartufatti with amarena cherry pieces around it. It was chocolate ice cream encased in some kind of chocolate shell that was pretty darn hard to break into. Plus, it didn’t look very appetizing. (There’s always a risk, IMHO, of making chocolate balls with little bumps around it. Eeeww.)

Oliveto Café is a beautiful dining area with expertly executed dishes. The choices are simple and basic—more rustic than refine. So don’t come expecting to be wowed with innovative combinations of ingredients or fancy plating. Simplicity is the key here. It’s a great place to have a casual dinner while still feeling like you’re getting the special treatment.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (quality ingredients showcased simply)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner


Anonymous said...

Have you tried breakfast at Oliveto Cafe? It's a great way to start the morning, especially before you get on BART to go to work. Sticky buns, homemade granola and a pizza with a fresh egg on top (weird, I know, but it's good). My only complaint is a somewhat snooty crowd. -- David

Single Guy Ben said...

Hi David, no I didn't realize they had breakfast like that. Do you buy it to go or do you always have that much time before work to eat out? ;-) I barely have time in the mornings on the workweek to get my instant oatmeal going.

So what do you mean about the snooty crowd? Do you mean the wait staff or the customers? I can see if you mean the customers. Sometimes they can be snooty. But I usually don't pay attention to the little people around me. Ha! Just kidding. :)

Anonymous said...

You can get it to go, but I usually just eat it's only for those times when you realize your boss is out that day and you can stroll in a little late. ;-)

A clarification: The folks who work there are really nice; it's some of the other customers. -- David