Taste of the Town

Modesty Marks Newishcomer


     Ambition is a necessary character trait for a rookie restaurateur. The impulse to overreach, however, can be lethal. Joe Madison understands the difference. His first restaurant, Enoteca Molinari, comes up on its second anniversary
this December. Its success owes to a simple, straightforward approach on all fronts, including the short-but-satisfying Italian menu, the minimalist-but-cozy  interior and the skeletal-but-efficient staff. Having endured a sluggish economy, the departure of opening chef Steve Jaramillo and a competitive dining scene that can push eateries toward attention-grabbing gimmicks, Enoteca Molinari occupies an unpretentious niche where it could become a Rockridge institution.
     We ate there three times in recent months, once when Jaramillo was still cooking, and twice when Napoli native Angelo Verde was working the tiny open kitchen. That gave us a chance to sample several dishes from the limited offerings that are divided up into spuntini (snacks or appetizers), salumi (small platters of cured meats, including speck, prosciutto and soppressata), formaggi (cheese plates), vedure e zuppa (salads and soups)
and pesce, carne e pasta (fish, meat and pasta main dishes).
     In the broad view, the food is exactly what you’d want from a neighborhood eatery where you can drop in for a bite at the seven-seat bar (with $5 glasses of wine available during the 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. happy hour and after 9 p.m.) or settle in for a lengthier multicourse meal at one of the half-dozen bare-topped tables. The prices are higher than a casual café, but with nothing more than $20, they are well below those of a destination restaurant. We did detect a puzzling wariness of salt in dishes that could have used a dash to harmonize the flavors, and there was no salt on the tables. I suppose that reflects the general vibe of understated ornamentation — on the walls (which are accented only by small bunches of dried bay leaves, a short red velvet curtain above the front window and a long one at the back and small pyramid-shade droplights), as well as on the plate.
     Letting the ingredients speak entirely for themselves proved a winning strategy when they asserted their own pungency. This was most notably the case with the two pasta dishes we tried. The orecchiette con le cime di rapa ($14) sparkled with the bite of broccoli rabe, pepperoncino and barilotto (a firm, aged, buffalo-milk cheese) over house-made disc pasta that was perfectly al dente. Minced anchovy disappeared into the mix and provided the subtle saltiness and savory umami element that rounded out the dish. The tagliatelle al ragu ($17/$12 for a starter portion) featured a slow-cooked “five-hour” Marin Sun Farms pork-and-beef sauce based on an old family recipe (Madison, half-Italian, used his mother’s maiden name for the restaurant). Rich and complex, it gained added depth from grated Parmigiano, which melted into the ragu before it was brought to the table.
      Until our third dinner, when we sat at the bar and chatted with Madison (who comes across just as unassuming as his restaurant), Robin had never met an arancino (fried rice ball) she really liked. Enoteca Molinari’s Siciliano version ($8) converted her. A large sphere of saffron rice, bigger than a golf ball, smaller than a tennis ball, is filled with peas, mozzarella and the aforementioned ragu, then battered and fried and served in a pool of bright marinara sauce. Robin also came to understand why speck (smoked prosciutto, in this case from Italy’s Alto Adige, bordering Austria) is one of my favorite cured-pork products. On an earlier visit, we were impressed with the zuppa di peroni ($7), roasted red bell pepper soup, which was cheerily accented with a generous swirl of bright green basil oil. You could set us up with those small plates and some wine from the more than 50 Italian selections on the list — we tried and loved glasses of Tenute Rubino Punta Aquila Primitivo ($10) and Corte Normanna Aglianico ($13) and a bottle of Bocella Rasott Campi Taurasini Aglianico ($40) — and we’d be happy Campania campers.
      If we were to order the caponata antipasto ($6) again, we would probably ask for a bit of salt to tease out and meld the eggplant zucchini, sweet pepper and San Marzano tomato that didn’t quite pop when spread on slices of Acme toast. Similarly, the pâté di funghi ($6) — a smooth, thick fusion of portobello and porcini mushrooms and ricotta cheese — lacked any discernible seasoning. On the entrée front, the brothy sugo of white wine and heirloom red and yellow cherry tomatoes, spiked with pepperoncino, in the pesce all’acqua pazza ($16), was perfectly balanced (if, again, underseasoned) to allow the super mild flavor of the snowy petrale sole to whisper through. But I might hold out for a different treatment of pork than the small, slightly dry and chewy, breaded-cutlet version, cotoletta alla Milanese ($18), which was starkly presented with just a mound of sautéed friarielli. However, I’d have those tangy greens, the Naples version of rabe, anytime.
     Dessert is typically my least preferred course. But while you make your selections from the frequently changing menu — prosciutto and melon ($8), caprese salad ($10), and gnocchi al pesto ($14) are likely standard fare — think about saving room for the heavenly panna cotta ($7), ours came with exquisite peaches and candied nuts, or the addictive budino al caramello salato ($7), salted caramel pudding topped with whipped crème fraîche and pecans. Madison took over making the desserts when his cousin Emilia Aiello retired from baking last year. Although Madison doesn’t make a big show of the family connections, they must play into the homey vibe that ripples like an undercurrent beneath the recipes, the muted jazz soundtrack, the service and Madison’s genial wine suggestions. Lunch service and physical expansion from its current 25-seat-or-so capacity might be on the horizon, but expect the changes to be eased in with the refreshing modesty that is Enoteca Molinari’s hallmark.

Enoteca Molinari. Italian. Serves dinner 5:30–10 p.m. Tue.–Thu., 5:30–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat.
5474 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 428-4078.
limited online reservations www.enoteca-molinari.com

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