Not Just Another Fashionable Destination
This Oakland outpost of the SF stalwart merits regular rotation.
Shears for cutting slices accompany pizza—that’s the rachetta on p. 59—that also sports a “handle” stuffed with filling. A16 does antipasti such as braised greens with ceci beans, slow-cooked egg bruschetta, and Calabrian chili (opposite page) and burrata of cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and sea salt well (this page, bottom). Delicious cocktails (this page, top): Gioconda Swizzle (left) and the Cielo.
When A16 debuted in San Francisco’s Marina District in 2004, it was an immediate hit and, nearly 10 years later, it remains one of the region’s top-rated restaurants. History repeated itself in June when A16 Rockridge opened on College Avenue in Oakland. From the get-go, seats have been in high demand in the splendidly remodeled dining room, in the bar/lounge (slightly more integrated into the overall space than when Hudson and Garibaldi’s dwelled there) and at the semicircular counter around the wood-fired pizza oven. You may have thought the East Bay didn’t need another eclectic Italian restaurant with a wood-fired pizza oven. The crowds say you would have been wrong.
A16 is the creation of owner/wine director Shelley Lindgren and executive chef Rocky Maselli, with interior design by Cass Calder Smith, whimsical original paintings by Kelly Tunstall, and a cocktail menu crafted by Greg Lindgren (of Rye and 15 Romolo, and Lindgren’s husband), and head bartender Aidan Hansen. The restaurant’s name derives from the main highway that Shelley Lindgren and her business partner, Victoria Libin, drove during their culinary research trip through Campania. The menu is rooted in the cuisine of southern Italy, with a focus on Puglia, in keeping with Maselli’s family heritage.
The first thing you notice upon entering is the buzz—a combination of the conversations loudly bouncing off the wood and marble surfaces and the radiant energy generated by seating lots of diners in close quarters. The frenetic atmosphere is tempered by a more soothing visual panorama (white walls, dark-beamed ceiling, a roll-up garage-door window, gentle lighting) and by the staff, from the reassuring greeters (who made us feel attended to even when we weren’t promptly seated for our reservation) to the servers and sommeliers who exercise an assured command of an extensive food menu and a truly boggling wine collection, which is dominated by unusual central and southern Italian bottlings.
Some people will patronize the place precisely for that buzz: Because this is A16, it’s a happening scene, and it adds another fashionable destination to Oakland dining. We’ll return when we’re feeling slightly extravagant—despite the noise and crowding. Indeed, it would take a dozen or so visits to explore all that is offered in the dinner menu’s seven sections: crudo (including oysters, anchovies, halibut, albacore, and shrimp, $4–$14); spuntino (such as mixed nuts, pickles, salt cod balls, and fennel seed and black pepper breadsticks, $3–$12); antipasto (burrata, braised greens, roasted calamari, kohlrabi salad, $11–$16); primo (out-of-the-ordinary pastas such as baked lumaconi with pork ragu, dandelion greens, and smoked caciocavallo cheese, $15–$31, with some available in small-plate portions); pizza (including an unusual fried rendition and several Neapolitan variations, $14–$20); secondo (main dishes ranging from roasted chicken, squab, or trout to rabbit sausage, king salmon, and pork scaloppine, roughly $22–$38); and contorno (seasonal side dishes like roasted summer squash with cherry tomato and mint, or hearts of escarole with lemon, anchovy, and radish, $6–$8 or free with a secondo). That’s only the lead-in to dessert, which has its own multi-tiered menu with cheese, dolce (tarts, mousses, turnovers, panna cotta, cookies, gelatos, upside down cake), dessert cocktails, sweet and fortified wines, and special coffees and teas.
Whew. I think I need a drink. Any of the cocktails we tried—Cielo ($10), Mirtonic ($11), Catch 22 ($9), French sidecar ($10)—will do. However, like the dishes, the custom libations change frequently. Like the chefs, the mixologists incorporate fresh, seasonal ingredients, such as anise hyssop in the tequila-based Cielo, and they experiment with bitters (cynar, derived from artichoke), liqueurs (Strega, Mirto), fortified wines (Cocchi, Carpano Antica) and top shelf and artisanal spirits in their concoctions.
So, yes, we’ll go back for cocktails. And starters. From the crudo list, the Mendocino sea urchin with nasturtium ($12) satisfied my recurring hankering for the creamy texture and pure, oceanic taste of uni and piqued my interest in the other raw fish offerings. When craving fried snacks, we’ll go for the olives ($8) and Friarelli peppers and squash blossoms ($12) from the spuntino. The heirloom tomato and melon salad ($13), dressed with thyme, shallots, purslane, and dried, pressed ricotta was reason enough to dive deeper into the antipasto.
The only secondo we had a chance to try were the lamb meatballs, deliciously crunchy on the outside, delicately spiced and tender inside, complemented well by my contorno choice, roasted fennel with bottarga (cured fish roe) and lemon, but as a main course it wasn’t a bargain at $25. Similarly, $20 seemed steep for the rachetta pizza; despite its taste-buds-tickling topping/filling of tomato sauce, onion, green olives, basil, and ricotta, pecorino, and mozzarella cheeses, the unsliced pie, with its puffy edge, limp center crust, and offbeat, calzone-like stuffed “handle” appendage, came up short in comparison with other East Bay wood-oven creations.
The pastas, surprisingly, didn’t feel so overpriced and distinguished themselves with their complexity and textural perfection, which is saying a lot in an area where Dopo, Chez Panisse Cafe, Boot and Shoe Service, and La Siciliana set such high standards. The aforementioned baked lumaconi (“snail shells,” $16) was a festival of smoky, savory, and spicy-greens flavors, and the pansotti (ravioli-like triangles, $19/$11), filled with ricotta and roasted eggplant and beautifully garnished with cherry and sun gold tomatoes and mint, live on in Robin’s memory like Proust’s madeleine.
We got around to only one dessert, but the big, round ricotta fritters ($9) with apricot compote and slivered almonds boded well for further research. Likewise for the wine. One carafe ($30) of a memorable 2009 Sicilian Etna Rosso Allegracore ($54 for a full bottle) was an infinitesimal sampling from the nine-page list but plenty to inspire faith in the servers’ recommendations and curiosity about the other 275 or so selections. And that may be the key to A16. It can unsettle you with its scope and clamor—and it doesn’t have the singular personality and vision that such chefs as Kyle Itani (Hopscotch), Paul Canales (Duende), Russell Moore (Camino), and Charlie Hallowell (Pizzaiolo) have brought to Oakland—but it does enough so well, with creativity and confidence, you might just make it a road more traveled.
A16 Rockridge. Italian 5356 College Ave., Oakland, 510-768-8003; dining room 5:30–10 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 5–10 p.m. Sun.; bar 5–11 p.m. Sun.–Thu., 5 p.m.–12 a.m. Fri.–Sat.; late night menu 10–11 p.m. Sun.–Thu. and 10 p.m.–12 a.m. Fri.–Sat., www.a16rockridge.com, $$$$