A Reset for Oliveto Café & Restaurant

Oliveto occupies a special niche of East Bay dining, and its most recent reset has happily strengthened its position.


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Photos by Lance Yamamoto

In 1986, Ronald Reagan was president, Microsoft held its initial public offering, the Chernobyl disaster shocked the world, Georgia O’Keeffe and Benny Goodman died, and Lady Gaga and Rafael Nadal were born. And on Dec. 16, on College Avenue in Rockridge, Oliveto made its debut. Gaga and Rafa are doing pretty well at 33. But given the ever-compounding challenges of its business environment, the endurance of Oliveto Café & Restaurant as both a white-tablecloth, fine dining destination (upstairs) and an upscale but casual, all-day café (downstairs) may be more impressive. And with Brian Griffith having recently been elevated to executive chef after working for two years as sous chef under Jonah Rhodehamel, Oliveto is not only persisting but is hitting a new groove.

Give some credit to the magnetic and parking-friendly location as the corner anchor of the building that houses Market Hall, across the street from the Rockridge BART station. Take into account the enduring appeal of refined Italian cuisine, which Oliveto helped cultivate and elevate during the tenure of chef Paul Bertolli. But don’t skimp on props for the crucial couple working mostly behind the scenes: owners Bob and Maggie Klein.

Hands-on proprietors, the Kleins turn out the daily printed menus and maintain an informative online Community Journal. They have supervised significant remodels almost every decade, including the addition of wood-fired ovens, the installation of a brilliantly effective Meyer Sound noise-dampening system upstairs, and the periodic revamping of the café, notably the rosticceria program of spit-roasted meats. They also oversee annual specialty dinners themed around truffles, tomatoes, seafood, Sicilian cuisine, and the “Whole Hog.”

A low-key, amiable presence, Bob Klein can be spotted ambling through the café or the dining room, checking on what’s happening on the floor, at the bar, or in the kitchen. Often wearing a pullover sweater vest, hands clasped behind his back, he’s the one who looks like a bearded, bespectacled professor.

Much of Oliveto’s past luster came from chefs who went on to high-profile endeavors, including opening chef Rick Hackett (MarketBar, Bocanova), Michael Tusk (Quince, Cotogna), Bertolli (who parlayed his salumi expertise into Fra’ Mani Handcrafted Foods), and Paul Canales (Duende). But in 2005, talking about the departure of Bertolli, Klein told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We’re really not trying to promote a celebrity chef here. … The restaurant is not built on one person, but on a collection of hardworking, skilled, deeply knowledgeable people who are turned on to learning every day.”

That doesn’t belie the importance of chef Griffith, a Tennessee native who worked in the kitchens of Denver’s Table 6, Portland’s Carlyle, and Copenhagen’s two-Michelin-star Kadeau. In an email to me after we’d eaten huge meals in the upstairs dining room and in the café, Klein said, “Brian’s a force — he’s smart, comes from very good kitchens, and he makes things happen. He’s shifted our menu towards a better balance of vegetables, meats, fish and grains — the way people want to eat now. I also think he’s finding a balance between traditional and innovative food.”

Fine dining doesn’t come cheap upstairs at Oliveto. Soups, salads, and shared-plate starters range from $10 to $18, pastas $22 to $25, main courses $27 to $39, and desserts $6 to $10. Even if a couple does a lot of sharing, as Robin and I typically do, once you add in a cocktail, like the terrific Missing King (rye, cynar, aperol, and lemon, $14), a glass of wine or two (a rich Chianti or a fine Aglianico, $14 each), and the 18 percent service charge, you’re topping out around $175. But if that’s in your budget, given the attentive and well-timed service we experienced and the high quality of ingredients and execution, you probably won’t feel like you’ve overpaid, even for a $3 basket of bread — Acme levain and Community Grains long-fermented whole wheat, with superb, snow-white butter.

Our dinner started with the bread and a chicken liver due (duo) of Tuscan-style pâté with aged balsamic vinegar and a terrine made with smoked cherries and Morel mushrooms. Given the absence of the once-signature house-made salumi, this was a perfect opener. Other options included a crudo of Magruder beef, snails with pickled mushroom, and grilled beef merguez with red flint polenta.

Griffith’s use of seasonal produce and his balancing act of “traditional and innovative” informed our pastas. Rigatoni with peaches, Tuscan sausage, and basil was a surprise hit, a tantalizing melding of sweet and savory flavors and complementary textures. As Robin predicted, however, that melding didn’t succeed in the ambitious amalgamation of hat-shaped cappellacci with nectarines, sand dabs, and mint; the soft, mild fish failed to find a comfortable fit in the otherwise well-rendered dish. Other pastas incorporated pork heart ragu, butter beans, and black garlic gremolata; porcini mushroom ragu and blueberries; and more straightforward combinations such as white shrimp, tomato, chili, garlic, and lemon.

From a choice of four main courses — including a combination of roasted carrots, fregola pasta, morels, goat cheese, and fava beans, and a grilled Piedmontese rib-eye — the perfectly cooked Santa Cruz king salmon (crisp skin, moist flesh) poised atop toothsome risotto with shrimp, asparagus, and Calabrian chili was another example of Griffith applying precise technique to the best ingredients. Our dessert indulgences — a simple bowl of refreshing peach and sweet cream ice creams, and a warm nectarine-blackberry, pastry-perfect crostata with crème anglaise — indicated that the new pastry chef, Eric Pulgarin, is a worthy heir to the legacy of his mentor Jenny Raven.

Judging by the margherita pizza ($12.50) we shared at our café meal — which started during happy hour (discounted drinks and small plates) and continued into dinner service — Pulgarin still has some work to do on the dough, which he and Bob Klein are trying to perfect with extra-finely milled, locally grown hard winter whole wheat. The flavor was extraordinary but the hard-edged crust was tight and lacking in airy structure. A man of obsessive passions (long-term relationships with principled regional purveyors, meats from heritage whole animals, super expensive aged Italian wines), Klein, who started the heritage-wheat Community Grains company in 2010, won’t rest until that dough is right.

Just about everything else we tried downstairs — the garlic-roasted almonds and marinated olives ($3); the dense, coarse, crusty pork meatballs with marinara sauce ($8.50/$13.50); the meaty, creamy lasagne alla Bolognese ($18); and the brothy, ocean-fresh cioppino with rock cod, shrimp, clams, mussels, and aioli ($24.50) — was already spot-on. Only an overly chilled, milky ceviche ($13) didn’t do justice to the billing of cod, lime juice, cilantro, pink pepper, coconut milk, and avocado.

Oliveto occupies a special niche of East Bay dining, one that is both rarefied and accessible, persisting against the tides of tasting menus and fast-casual counter service. Its most recent reset has happily strengthened its position.

Oliveto Restaurant & Cafe

Californian, Italian. 5655 College Ave., Oakland, 510-547-5356. Café serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner Sun.-Thu. 8 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m., happy hour menu Mon.-Fri. 3:30-5:30 p.m.; restaurant serves lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner Sun.-Thu. 5:30-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30-9:30 p.m.

www.Oliveto.com CCG☎ $$–$$$$ 

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