Motivated to Return to Donato & Co.
A new Italian eatery hits the ground running in Elmwood.
Photo by Lori Eanes
Several years ago, I was talking with an Oakland chef who was planning a new restaurant. He was shifting away from the cuisine he’d been cooking for more than a decade, and asked rhetorically, “Who needs another Italian restaurant?” Apparently, Oakland and Berkeley do, judging by the success of Belotti, in two Oakland locations; the firm footing of Agrodolce (from the family that brought us Trattoria La Siciliana) in the Gourmet Ghetto; and the ambitious, hit-the-ground-running debut of Donato & Co. in the Elmwood district.
A collaborative effort by chefs Donato Scotti (DESCO) and Gianluca Guglielmi (A.G. Ferrari), Donato & Co. opened in October in the space that had been built out for — and occupied for less than a year by — the Advocate. Friends who live in the Elmwood hypothesized that the Advocate struggled to attract a youthful clientele, that millennials would look in and surmise the scene was too old. And although Elmwood seemed ripe for the introduction of its first full-service bar, even the Advocate’s sophisticated cocktail program didn’t do the trick. That doesn’t seem to be case with Donato & Co., at least judging by the multigenerational span of diners we encountered on most of our visits — everyone from aging boomers in the dining room to hipster couples at the bar, from lively family and business parties of a dozen or more to a solo senior who sat down at the bar and was greeted by Casey, the bar manager, with “a Manhattan, as usual?”
For Robin and me, the bar, which takes up most of the left side of the expansive, high-ceilinged room, is a main attraction. Casey came up with a perfect French Sidecar — with his own recipe — for Robin, and nailed both a Manhattan and Negroni for me. He was unflappable the night that dinner parties of 12 and 18 ordered drinks all at once, and he and other bartenders kept up just enough conversation to make us feel like pulling up a stool would always be right thing to do, whether we were exploring the full dinner menu or grazing on the apericena (snacks) available between lunch and dinner service. Motivation to become regulars at Donato & Co. comes in other ways, as well. There’s the comfort factor. The restaurant inherited great industrial-chic bones from the Advocate: a combination of booths and banquette-backed and stand-alone tables; ample bar seating, including a high-top table for eight; a broad, open exhibition kitchen; and large black-and-white historical photos of Berkeley on panels that are part of the pioneering Meyer Sound system, which attenuates room noise and pipes in crystal-clear, subtly amplified jazz.
Then there’s the sensibility of inventiveness. Chefs Scotti and Guglielmi, Italian natives from Bergamo (near Lake Como) and Vicenza (in the Veneto), respectively, draw from myriad regional traditions and regularly add new dishes to the menus they’ve divided into “Farm & Fields,” “Salt & Water,” “Pasta & Co.,” “Iron & Fire,” and “Sweets” sections, and they post three or four specials every week on a blackboard in the bar. The luscious, fork-tender braised beef cheek “Guancia” with polenta and broccoli rabe we had at one dinner was replaced by braised beef rib “Costa” with polenta and dandelion the next. The thickly cut, browned cauliflower “Bistecca” that came with butternut squash cream when we had it was served two weeks later with spicy puttanesca sauce. Similarly, Casey frequently changes up the Signature and Classic Cocktails. For the holiday season, he concocted a vodka Clover Club variation with limoncello, raspberry puree, lemon, and ginger spice, and a Daiquiri Delle Feste with rum, cinnamon, lime, pineapple reduction, and benedictine. Although I favor simpler three-ingredient classics, those creations came off fully integrated, balanced, neither cloying nor fussy.
Nearly a third of the lunch and dinner dishes are offered in half portions, which multiplies your options. At our first dinner, thinking we could also manage main entrées of beef cheek and cauliflower, Robin and I shared smaller plates of pappardelle with prawns, cannellini beans, and lemon zest, and house-made buckwheat ravioli filled with Swiss chard, casera cheese, sage, and potato. The pastas were al dente, and the ravioli were especially addictive, seemingly finished in a hot pan with crispy garlic and basil to add a touch of crunch. We ended up taking a fair amount of beef and cauliflower home.
On another night, we sat at the bar, watched a Warriors game on the discreetly positioned flat-screen TV (volume off), and indulged in a parade of apericena: polenta fritta, a cornmeal version of tater tots, with a ramekin of spicy tomato sauce for dipping; pizzella, a round flatbread topped with broccoli and pecorino cheese; and baccala, a cube of crispy-crusted salt-cured cod, with shaved fennel and orange. We also tried a small, thick slab of slow-braised pork belly with borlotti beans and grilled chicory; capunsei, cheese and bread dumplings with an Emiliana beef, sausage, and tomato sauce; plus a board of delicious house-made salumi — ham, salami, porchetta — served with pickled carrots and green beans and olive oil focaccia (additional bread available on request). I returned for a solo bar visit to try the grilled Monterey Bay calamari and Mediterranean octopus (tentacle) with chunky Sicilian caponata and lemony, garlicky salmoriglio sauce. It couldn’t have been better. And finally having room for dessert, I indulged in the recently added torta caprese — flourless almond chocolate cake with sour cherries and chocolate sauce. Everything we ate on multiple visits was nothing less than satisfying, although many dishes are more subtle than startling.
Donato and Guglielmi are leaving no stone unturned. They’ve taken aim at the neighborhood’s brunch potential by adding intriguing pancake, pastry, egg, and potato offerings on Saturdays and Sundays. When they opened in Elmwood, Scotti was already operating Donato Enoteca and Cru in Redwood City and Desco in Old Oakland. Desco closed at the end of December due to an “inability to come to a long-term agreement,” but the new partnership reportedly has plans for a venture in San Francisco, and as they’ve proven with Donato & Co., they’re not interested in opening just another Italian restaurant.
Donato & Co.
Italian. 2635 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, 510-838-1131. Snacks, small plates, soups, and salads $4-$13, pastas $9-$18, entrées $15-$24 (half orders $8-$11), desserts $7-$9, classic and signature cocktails $10-$11, wines by the glass $7-$15, by the bottle $28-$72. Serves lunch and dinner, Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., brunch, lunch, and dinner Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. and Sun. 10 a.m.=9 p.m. DonatoAndCo.com, CC G ☎ $$$-$$$$.