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.  

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Head to Alameda for Authentic ItalianĀ 

My BFF and I took my sister out last night to celebrate her birthday.  The birthday girl wanted Italian food and suggested Trabocco Kitchen and Cocktails located at Alameda South Shore Center.  It was my first time here and honestly my expectations were pretty low.

The service was really good.  We were immediately given warm bread to dip in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and were asked what we wanted to drink.  We each ordered cocktails.  I really enjoyed my “Milano Mule” which is their twist on a Moscow Mule.  It had Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom vodka, saffron, and ginger beer and it was delicious.  
We started with a Caesar salad that wasn’t actually on the menu but it caught our eye when another table ordered it.  It was simple, but tasty.  We really liked the boiled egg that was included.   

 We had two antipasti.  One was the carpaccio which is raw, grass fed beef tenderloin with lemon, olive oil, shaved parmesan, and arugula.  Another very simple and delicious dish.  The meat was so tender that it melted in my mouth.  

 The other antipasti appeared much more complicated.  We had the polipo e patate which is grilled octopus with two kinds of potatoes, celery, lemon, and olive oil.  This was probably my favorite dish of the evening.  I loved the meaty char on the octopus.  
 My BFF picked the special rotisserie of the day which was duck.  It came with polenta and spinach.  The skin wasn’t crispy like Peking duck, rather fattier like a roast duck.  It had a deep rich flavor that was enjoyable.
 My sister ordered the agnolotti di zucca which is house-made pasta filled with butternut squash, walnuts, brown butter sage sauce, and parmesan.  I was pretty excited about it because you can see through a window where fresh pasta is being made.  I loved the texture of the pasta on the agnolotti, but the filling and sauce was a bit heavy and boring.  This was probably my least favorite dish, but I would still consider trying other pasta dishes here in the future.

 I ordered the pollo alla contadina, the wood-fire chicken with an herb and chili flake marinade.  It came with potatoes and root vegetables.  I asked to substitute the root vegetables with the green beans, but they accidentally substituted spinach.  I was ok with that.  The chicken had crispy skin and tender juicy meat that made me happy.   

 I would be remiss not to mention the wine we had that complimented our dinner.  My BFF did a great job selecting the montepulciano and it was a perfect pairing for our meal.  

 For dessert, they brought out a free tiramisu for the birthday girl.  It was exceptional and I can’t remember ever having a better one.  

 We also had the zabaglione, an Italian custard cream with fresh fruit.  I personally thought it was a bit on the thin side and didn’t enjoy it as much as the others at the table.  I would’ve liked more tiramisu.  

 In summary, we had a great experience at Trabocco.   I think we had a pretty good sampling of foods, but I did watch pizzas coming out to tables that looked amazing.  I’ll definitely be back for more as this was just an introduction to delicious authentic Italian food in Alameda.

Hard Water: Easy to Enjoy

Today is National Best Friend’s Day so I am writing about last night’s outing to celebrate my best friend’s birthday. She had been wanting to try out a place called Hard Water at Pier 3 in San Francisco. We had dinner reservations for three at 7:15pm. My sister, my BFF, and I showed up about fifteen minutes early prepared to have a drink at the bar. To our surprise, the restaurant pretty much is set up like a bar. About a third of the seating surrounds the bar that is located in the center of the room. Another set of seating is counter space on the right and left walls. There are two community tables in the front of the restaurant on the right and left side. The coolest thing was the back wall filled with hundreds of bottles of whiskey.
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The place was packed so we waited about ten minutes before we got seated at the bar. With the strange set up, we were happy to be seated there. The cocktail list was quite attractive to me. My sister’s first drink was the Pimm’s Cup which had gin, vermouth, amari, cucumber, strawberries, and bitter lemon soda.
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In celebration of the Belmont Stakes, my first drink was the Mint Julip. This was made with bourbon, gum syrup, crushed ice, and loaded with mint and served in a cute stainless steel cup and straw.
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The birthday girl had a craft bourbon flight that included two local ones. I was happy she didn’t order the $250 flight! The one that stood out for her was the Brimstone from Texas that smelled of campfire.
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Our second round of drinks included more cocktails and beer. My sister got a pretty pink drink (no photo) called Roffignae cocktail made of Redemption rye, lemon, grapefruit, red hembarig syrup, and soda water. My BFF ordered an Abita Amber. I got the Presbyterian which was Wild Turkey 101 bourbon, lemon, ginger, and soda. It was delicious and I loved the candied ginger on top.
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We did have food to go with our drinks. We ordered three appetizers to start. The Dirty Rice had ground pork and chicken liver. It was delicious especially with their homemade hot sauce. Oddly, it seemed to have mellowed off the spiciness in the rice. The secret to the hot sauce is chilis from Fresno.
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Another appetizer we ordered was the cornmeal crusted alligator with aioli. It was actually my first time having alligator, aside from a piece of alligator jerky I’ve tried. The alligator was fried so I couldn’t make out any unique flavor.
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The third appetizer was the one I was most looking forward to which was pork belly crackling with a Cajun spice, lemon, and scallions. They were a combination of piping hot, crispy, fatty, and flavorful pork. They were amazing!
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We picked one entree to share and agreed on the shrimp and grits. The shrimp and sauce blended well with the creamy cheesy grits. It was a great choice.
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Birthday girl chose the chocolate cream pie for dessert. It was made with a peanut butter ganache and a peanut butter crumble. With the first spoonful, we were all in heaven. It was supercalafragalisticexpealidocious!
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We thoroughly enjoyed the experience at Hard Water. I may have walked in a bit skeptical, but I walked out a happy customer.

Prospect: Chez Chic

I envy the residents that live in the Infiniti Towers in San Francisco. Why so? The gorgeous condominium is close to the Bay, walking distance to the Ferry Building and AT&T Park, and has a chic restaurant offering fine food. I finally had the opportunity to dine at Prospect recently. Prospect is the sister restaurant to Boulevard also located in San Francisco.

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My two friends and I started out with some fun cocktails. They offered us a list of specialty cocktails, but you can also have the bartender tailor a cocktail to your tastes.

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We decided we would do some sharing amongst the three of us. We would start with two orders of the mushroom and squash soup. Like many fancy restaurants, you get a bowl of goodies and the waiter pours the liquid part of the soup into the bowl in front of you. It was nice of them to divide the orders and give us each our own bowl. It was smooth, creamy, and divine. Adding mushrooms to a butternut squash soup can surprisingly make a soup special.

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We also shared the baby artichoke and burrata salad. It came with some prosciutto. This was a nice appetizer to share because we could pick at it.

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One of the entrees we had was the rib eye steak which came with onion rings, mashed potatoes, and green beans. One of my friends was a good sport and allowed me to order the meat medium rare. Although she typically likes her meat well done, I think she enjoyed the juicy, tender version we ordered. This All-American dish was spot on.

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The other entree we shared was the sea bass which came with fingerling potatoes, broccoli romanesco, and clams. I tried a small piece of the fish and thought it was quite delicate and delicious.

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We ordered one dessert to share which was the ginger spice cake. It came with poached pear, huckleberry sauce, and walnut ice cream. The combination worked well together.

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Dinner at Prospect reminded me that I was eating in a culinary Mecca. For special occasions, I would highly recommend Prospect. They also offer some less expensive options like happy hour, brunch, or Sunday Supper.

The Waterbar: Worth a Visit on a Nice Day

One of the biggest reasons I choose to live in Oakland over San Francisco is because it is typically at least ten degrees warmer in Oakland. But on the occasion when the fog is clear and the sun is beaming, I would wish to be no where else than San Francisco. We had one of those days recently when my friends and I went across the Bay Bridge to have lunch to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I recommended the Waterbar at the Embarcadero. We got to sit in the outside patio upstairs. It was a beautiful day.

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The Waterbar is known for their oysters on the half shell. Everyday before 6pm, they have a featured oyster that they sell for $1 a piece. It comes with a tasty citrus mignonette. We ordered a dozen oysters to start. What a great deal.

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It was fun to enjoy lunch cocktails as well. I really could stop writing here. The Waterbar is one of the best places to enjoy oysters on the half shell and drinks. The rest of the food is a bit inconsistent. There were some hits and misses.

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I’ll just share with you what was enjoyable. The salmon tartare was a nice appetizer. The bright orange color was not only a sign of freshness, but it was attractive.

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The soup was presented beautifully. The waiter poured the corn soup into the bowl of shrimp and creme fraiche. It was rich and creamy and quite tasty.

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The entrees were not so good. I think I had the best entree which was the trout. Especially good was the nice charred skin on the fish. In my opinion, the other dishes aren’t worth mentioning.

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For dessert, we chose to have a blueberry bread pudding. The taste was just okay. I am only mentioning it because it was nice that they decorated the plate.

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Service was quite slow, but we weren’t really bothered by it because we were not in a rush and were just appreciating the day.

The Waterbar is a fun place to enjoy a beautiful afternoon with drinks, oysters, and maybe a few appetizers. With Indian summer coming up, there will be some great opportunities.

Luka’s: A Great Pre-Show Meal

One of my favorite places to eat is Luka’s Taproom in Oakland. Although there is a room set up for music and dancing, I am more interested in the bar and restaurant. I have been eating at Luka’s for many years which includes many lunches since it is close to work. The food is always great. Their Belgian fries are addicting.

Earlier last week a group of four of us were going to see a show at the historic Paramount Theater. We had pre-show dinner reservations at Luka’s which was a good thing because it was packed.

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The signature cocktails at Luka’s are yummy. I ordered a Hemingway Daquiri, which has rum, grapefruit, and lime in a sugar rimmed glass, two of my friends had lemon drops, and one had a Merritt Martini which was described as a dirty martini with lots of stuff in it. Another delicious signature cocktail that they are famous for is the Buddha’s Hand Martini. The vodka is distilled in neighboring Alameda.

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We shared an order of fries to have with our drinks. I don’t think there has been a time that I’ve gone to Luka’s and not had some fries. These Belgian fries are thick and crisp and come with three dipping sauces – chipotle aioli, smoked paprika ketchup, and herbed aioli. Although I have a habit of trying them all, my favorite is always the smoked paprika ketchup.

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One of my friends ordered two appetizers for her meal. Sometimes I like to order this way as well. One dish was a spicy yellowfin tuna tartar. It was topped with a tempura avocado. I thought the star was the second dish, a roasted beet and apricot salad which came with arugula, radicchio, cucumber, goat cheese and a lemon vinaigrette. It was a beautiful palette of colors.

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Another friend ordered the roasted chicken breast with fava beans, baby carrots, and rosemary garlic mashed potatoes. For someone who doesn’t like chicken much, she devoured it. She also said it was the best mashed potatoes she’s ever had. They were very creamy.

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Having checked my “Seafood Watch” app, two of us were happy to order the crispy arctic char which as far as sustainability, was a best choice. It came with beech mushrooms, roasted shallots and fingerling potatoes, with chanterelle broth and watercress salad. I enjoyed this innovative dish very much.

The meal and company were a great start to our evening.