Gio’s Pizza: A Revival of Giovanni’s

People may recall Giovanni’s as an old school Italian restaurant that had been in business in Downtown Berkeley since 1961. In 2015, it closed its doors after a major fire caused serious damage. Today the restaurant has reopened as Gio’s Pizza & Bocce, playing homage to the former restaurant.  
As you enter the front of Gio’s, the fun begins. The open bar space is to the left and an indoor bocce ball court is to the right. The dining area and kitchen are located towards the back half of the restaurant.  I was invited along with my friends to Gio’s to try out their new food and cocktail menu. The first item to come out was fried calamari with lemon aioli, fried parsley, and citrus slices. I thought it had a nice light batter. I liked the fact that it had both the rings as well as the tentacles because our party each had our preference.  

The mushroom bruschetta arrived next. The toasts were topped with lemon ricotta, wild mushrooms, garlic, and thyme. As much as I love mushrooms, it was the mushrooms that brought this dish down for me. The texture of the mushrooms were tough. It tasted as if dried mushrooms were used and not soaked long enough. I am hoping that this was a fluke.
Karen’s Cucumber Salad was brought to the table. I don’t know who Karen is, but I wouldn’t mind attaching my name to this salad. The freshness of the farmer’s market cucumbers was apparent in the crunch. The salad included a variety of cucumbers, roasted peppers, cherry tomatoes, croutons, and a champagne vinaigrette.
My friends and I really enjoyed the mushroom and squash ziti that we were presented with. The pasta dish was cooked in butter, thyme, and white wine. Soft and delicate, these mushrooms had no resemblance to the ones on the bruschetta.  
Gio’s also includes two pizzas on their menu and you can order them New York style or Sicilian style. We got to try the sausage and mushroom pizza and the Margherita pizzas as single Sicilian style. I normally prefer red pizza over white pizza, but in this case, I preferred the sausage and mushrooms toppings. To me Sicilian pizza resembles a focaccia bread. I enjoyed the occasional crispiness from the bubbles that form in the dough.

Dessert is a polenta cake with ricotta creme, summer fruit, and kettle corn. To offer one dessert is a huge risk. I found it to be worth going “all in” because it was a highlight for me.  
Another area of focus at Gio’s is their cocktail menu highlighting Italian amaro and vermouth. The bar manager, Nick Stolte, spent time in Italy immersed in the culture and building relationships with vermouth and amaro purveyors. He designed and created a cocktail menu that highlights Italy’s best.  
The most interesting aspect of Gio’s is the secret back room. Behind the olive oil can door, is a private dining space that hasn’t changed since it was Giovanni’s. It is a cool space that makes your imagination of who would hang out here go wild. 
With a short menu and simple Italian food in a playful setting, I think Gio’s Pizza & Bocce will bring in a UC Berkeley crowd looking for some fun. However, I found meat offerings at Gio’s hard to come by so carnivores might be challenged.  

Advertisements

Weekend in Yosemite

I just returned from a weekend in Yosemite National Park, a crown jewel of California. Just a four hour drive from the Bay Area, it’s another reason I love where I live.  On Thursday, my friend and I both entered the lottery to get a permit to hike Half Dome on Saturday. At midnight, I received an email indicating that I won a permit. We left Oakland before sunrise on Friday morning to head to Yosemite. We wanted to ensure we would miss traffic and be able to get in a good hike before dinner at the Majestic Hotel, formerly the Ahwahnee Hotel.  
At the visitor center, we got a recommendation to hike Upper Yosemite Falls to help us get acclimated to the elevation before we set off to conquer Half Dome the next morning. 
It was a pretty intense hike to get to the beautiful Yosemite Falls. We got back barely with enough time to check in to the Half Dome Village tents and make our dinner reservation.

It was actually my friend’s birthday so I treated her to dinner at the Majestic Hotel. She started her meal with the soup of the day which was a salmon and bacon chowder. The bacon infused the soup quite well and gave it a smokey flavor.
I had the Caesar salad which was probably the best prepared dish of the evening. I loved the addition of boiled egg, croutons, and anchovies to the romaine lettuce. The salad was perfectly dressed as well.
My friend ordered the prime rib which came with mashed potatoes, corn polenta, and green beans. The meat was a bit tough and came with a gelatinous gravy. We both agreed it would’ve been better with an au jus. However, the corn polenta was delicious, creamy and fluffy providing a custard like texture.  
I ordered the rack of lamb. This lamb was roasted with a garlic crust. The flavor was great but was not cooked to my liking. I asked for medium rare, but it came out almost medium well. 
I was disappointed in the meal compared to my last visit at the Ahwahnee several years ago.  
With an early start the next morning, my friend and I got set on the trails for Half Dome at 5:30am. We reached Vernal Falls within a short time after, which was an awesome site to see. 

 After about six and a half hours of treacherous hiking and climbing, we finally made it to the base of Half Dome. Already fatigue, I put on my gloves to endure the steel cable climb. It actually was a lot easier than I expected. But while climbing we began to hear thunderstorms and feel some sprinkles. My friend was encouraging me to just hurry up and get it done, so we trekked up a little further. Other hikers ahead of us began to get nervous and started making their descent. We finally agreed to play it safe and climb down as well. We expected a storm that was going to be worse than the night before that included a hailstorm. Hurrying down the granite dome without a proper break to avoid the forecasted storm, I wore myself out by the time we reached Half Dome Village. I have never endured such a rigorous and physical activity. I felt like my feet were going to break at any moment. 

When we got back to Half Dome Village, we were ready for dinner at Pizza Patio. We ordered the Tressider pizza which had pepperoni, sausage, bell pepper, mushrooms, olives, and tomato. The hand tossed pizza was perfect after such a long day. The pizza reminded me of Round Table Pizza, but better. I had three slices. The dough had a nice thick and chewy texture and the ingredients tasted very fresh. I would say I preferred the pizza dinner over the previous night’s dinner at The Majestic Hotel.

We slept well the second night in the tents. I’m surprised I was able to walk today, although my thighs and calves are a bit sore when I walk up or down stairs. Although I didn’t quite make it all the way to the top of the dome, I feel very accomplished. I know in my heart that if weather permitted, we would have made it to the granite peak. Nonetheless, it was an awesome experience and I can check it off my bucket list.
P.S.  I forgot to mention that we also encountered a baby bear on the hike to Half Dome!

Bluefin: When you can’t decide between Japanese and Thai food

Last week my family decided they wanted to go out to dinner. There was a lot of debate over what to eat. My mom had been in the mood for Japanese food lately and hadn’t gotten her fix. I was thinking Laotian or Thai food. My sister in law had suggested a restaurant in Alameda called Bluefin that serves both Japanese and Thai food. We all agreed to give it a try.
We ordered the fried chicken wings to share. They were cooked to a beautiful golden color and were crispy and flavorful. I enjoyed the fried herb that complemented it.  
I ordered the sake sashimi appetizer. When it came out there were some oohs and ahhs. It was very fresh and presentation was on point. I think I ate all five pieces in under sixty seconds.  
My brother and mother like cooked sushi, so they ordered a four sushi rolls: 1) The Dancing Roll is a California roll topped with BBQ eel. 2) The Lion King Roll is a California roll topped with salmon and baked with a special sauce. 3) The Bluefin Bomb has tuna, salmon, avocado, asparagus, scallions topped with a spicy sauce. 4) The Lobster Tempura roll has crusty fried lobster with avocado, masago, asparagus, and special sauce. These all were presented in a bamboo sushi boat.  
My sister in law wanted Thai food and ordered the Papaya Salad which has green papaya with prawns, tomatoes, peanuts, and a spicy lime dressing. I thought this was really fresh tasting.
I ordered the Tom Kha which is a Thai soup with coconut milk. My “bowl” runneth over with chicken, mushrooms, tomato, onion, lime leaves me galangal, and lemongrass. It was a large bowl that I couldn’t finish in one sitting. I ended up having it for lunch the next day and it was still delicious.  
One of my nieces ordered the Teriyaki Beef dinner. Bluefin knows their teriyaki. The beef was cooked a perfect medium rare and the flavor had the right amount of sweetness. It was laid on top of cabbage, carrots, and broccoli.  
My other niece wanted udon. We got her the tempura udon with the tempura on the side so that everyone could indulge in the fried goodness.
I definitely had a good overall experience at Bluefin. It’s easy to find parking, the staff are really nice, presentation is awesome, and their was a great variety of food that was quite enjoyable. I don’t know why the Yelp reviews are mediocre.  I would add an additional star.  I thought the chefs were able to conquer Japanese and Thai cuisines very well. I personally would go back to Bluefin to try more of both cuisines.  

King of Kebabs: The Kebabery

After hiking nearly thirteen miles today from the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Beach along the Bay Ridge Trail, my friend and I were hungry. Since I have another week of my diet of not eating carbohydrates and sugar, my options are somewhat limited. I have friends who dined at The Kebabery on Friday evening with a positive review and since kebabs are a great choice for me, I suggested we have dinner there.

The folks behind The Kebabery are the same people behind the very successful Camino. This casual joint is located in North Oakland, bordering Emeryville. Unlike Camino where the focus is cooking from a wood fire oven, The Kebabery celebrates the grill.

We tried to order as much variety as we could for the two of us. We started with their soup which was a vegetarian soup with garbanzo beans, celery, tomato, Swiss chard, and mushrooms. A dollop of Greek yogurt and some infused oil was placed on top. After blending it with my spoon, the soup thickened up. It was comforting and tasted delightful.  Another side dish to consider are the spiced fries. The other night, my friends ordered and polished off every last piece of the shoestring potatoes.  
We each ordered a Kebab Plate which includes a choice of one kebab, two side dishes, yogurt, herbs, spicy picked chiles, and either flatbread or red lentils. My friend’s plate had the lamb kebab, spiced carrots, mashed beets, and the flatbread.  
I ordered an extra kebab on my plate so we could try all three varieties. The two kebabs I ordered were the marinated chicken and the spiced king trumpet mushrooms. My sides were the mashed eggplant salad and the homemade pickles. In lieu of flatbread, I ordered the red lentils.  
All the side dishes are purposely cold. It reminds me of eating a mezze platter. My favorite sides were the mashed eggplant salad and mashed beets. The homemade pickles were kind of fun because it had an assortment that included carrots, cauliflower, fennel, and celery.  The lentils were mild in flavor and a creamy texture that I liked. My friend enjoyed the grilled flatbread. I am a sucker for flatbread and really wanted to taste it so I sampled a piece the size of a quarter. It was warm, fresh, and chewy. 

Of course the real star of The Kebabery are the kebabs. The lamb, the chicken, and the mushroom kebabs were all marinated with delicious spices that lend to a great grill. The lamb kebab was particularly flavorful. The chicken kebab was ever so moist and the pieces with chicken skin were crispy and amazing. The king trumpet mushrooms were also quite delicious. This option really gives vegetarians the opportunity to enjoy a full meal.
Every ingredient used at The Kebabery is organic. With that said, I think the prices are very reasonable. A sandwich goes for $12 and a kebab plate runs $15. Another thing to note is that there is no tipping at The Kebabery. This tells me that the staff at The Kebabery are paid a fair wage and the prices you pay go towards that. I like this innovative approach and I’ll be back when I don’t feel like cooking.