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.  


Lucia’s: A Pizzeria with Heart

It’s hard to imagine life without Neopolitan pizza. Lucky for me, this style of pizza is popular all over the Bay Area so I don’t have to travel to Naples, Italy to enjoy it. In my eyes, to master this pizza you would need a wood burning oven, authentic flour to produce a light chewy dough, and fresh ingredients including a high quality tomato sauce.  
Lucia’s Pizzeria in Downtown Berkeley opened late last year and serves Neopolitan pizza. I was invited to dine there a couple of months ago with a friend. We met with co-owner Alessandro Uccelli and his wife Elizabetha who were friendly and hospitable as soon as we walked through the door.  

We started with the Vegetarian Fritto Misto with lemon mint aioli. Fritto misto translates to mixed fry and is essentially the Italian version of Japanese tempura. Lucia’s version includes zucchini, eggplant, cauliflower, sweet potato, red pepper, and sage leaves. The batter was coated well to keep a solid crisp on the vegetables. The assortment of vegetables provided a fun way to start the meal.
My friend and I agreed to share the Kale Salad which had very few ingredients – kale, walnuts, and pecorino cheese. It was dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, and a hint of sriracha. I thought the salad was a nice companion with the fried vegetables. I enjoyed the simplicity and the nutty flavor.
The pasta of the day was Gnocchi Bolognese. Elizabetha made the pasta and Alessandro made the sauce bringing together a rich and hearty combination. These handmade potato dumplings were truly a family affair.  
Of course we had to order a pizza. We ordered the Lips of Fire, which is a basic Margherita pizza with added toppings of hot soppressata, ghost peppers, and maple syrup. Taking about 70 seconds to cook in the wood burning oven imported from Naples, the pizza came out with signature blistering bubbles. The flour and tomatoes they use are from Compania, Italy.  Biting into a slice, I enjoyed the flavors and heat. As I the neared the end of the slice, I was delighted with the soft chewy texture. That’s amore!
For dessert we got the housemade cannoli with ricotta and chocolate chips. It came out room temperature and I think if the filling was colder I would’ve enjoyed it much more.
Lucia’s offers Double 8 Dairy, a local buffalo milk gelato made in Petaluma. I asked if I could have a small taste of it and it was absolutely delicious. I visited their website and am impressed by their list of restaurants that serve their gelato.
Lucia’s is a pizzeria with heart. The owners are genuine and that shows in the food, service, and the overall experience.

Italian Comfort: Lo Coco’s 

Restaurants in Oakland come and go and keeps me on my toes. There is a small Italian restaurant that sits on Piedmont Avenue in North Oakland that has been around for quite some time. Lo Coco’s is an authentic neighborhood restaurant that serves Sicilian style food.  

A couple of weeks ago, I was craving Lo Coco’s. My BFF was happy to join me. “Remember it’s cash only,” she said. I picked her up after visiting the ATM. Actually, you can write a check, but who carries around a check book anymore?  

For the two of us, we decided on getting a pasta dish and a pizza. We ordered the pappardelle pasta with porcini mushrooms. My BFF had tried ordering it before when it wasn’t available, so the desire to have it had grown. The scent of the mushrooms were intoxicating as the dish arrived. The pasta had the perfect level of creaminess and cook with a strong earthy flavor. It exceeded my expectations.
 My usual pizza at Lo Coco’s is #9, the Vesuvio, which is topped with pepperoni and green onions. The pizza crust is well cooked and chewy and the tiny crispy pepperoni and the chopped green onions offers a royal match. The leftover pizza I reheated in my toaster oven the next day tasted even better.
 We shared the special homemade chocolate cannoli for dessert which is hand packed with ricotta cheese. The cannoli was pretty good, but slightly grainy.  I have enjoyed much better on the East Coast. The other option for dessert is tiramisu which I’ll need to try next time. Nonetheless, Lo Coco’s is there to satisfy my cravings for Italian comfort food. Don’t forget to bring cash!

Head to Alameda for Authentic Italian 

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.

The Search is Over for Italian in Oakland

When I consider where to go for good Italian fare, Oakland doesn’t really come to mind, at least not until recently. Desco is a fairly new Italian restaurant in Old Oakland that replaced the short-lived Borgo. Desco has been open for a few months and I have gone twice, once for lunch and once for dinner.

The borlotti salad has greens and beans in a light dressing. I enjoyed the heartiness that the plump beans offered.
The biete is another salad made of greens, roasted beets, goat cheese, and hazelnuts. These ingredients make for a perfect salad to start off any meal.
Desco makes thin crust pizzas in their wood-fired oven. On one visit, I enjoyed the margherita pizza with prosciutto on half of it. It had a wonderful crispy chewy crust. I give it two big thumbs up.
On another occasion, I ordered a white pizza with mozzarella cheese, homemade sausage and broccolini. With some extra red chili flakes I added, this combination was wonderful.
I also tried the baked eggplant that was presented in a skillet. This was also good, but I think because it was under the heading of “paste,” I assumed there would be some pasta in it.
The beef loin came with a balsamic wine reduction and grilled potatoes. If you like meat and potatoes like I do, you wouldn’t want to miss this one.
I tried a few desserts at Desco. My favorite was the zabaglione with strawberries and puffed pastry. I like light desserts especially after a big dinner.
Although rich, I did enjoy the panna cotta in a jar. I had a few spoonfuls and thought it was creamy, smooth, and delicious.
The warm chocolate cake with coffee sauce was my least favorite. It was not warm, nothing oozed out, and I didn’t like the texture. It’s okay as next time I can indulge in my own zabaglione.
I am hopeful that Desco can succeed because I need a go-to place for good Italian food in Oakland.

SPQR: Food to Appreciate

One of my girlfriends invited me to celebrate her birthday at SPQR in San Francisco. I had not heard much about SPQR, but I was excited because my friend enjoys good food. Sometimes the less you know about something the better because you aren’t setting yourself up for disappointment when your expectations are too high. I didn’t even know we were having Italian food until I was on my way to the restaurant. I started looking at photos on yelp on the drive over to the City and my excitement was reinvigorated.

We had reservations for four. It was my first time meeting one of my friend’s invited guests who has a lot of food allergies and everything had to be gluten free. This really left her to order her own food and the other three of us would order a bunch of items to share.

The first appetizer that came out was the “tomato and burrata,” which was a dish of fresh tomatoes, fried green cherry tomatoes, and burrata cheese dressed with opal basil vinegar. It came with a savory brioche. This dish was simplistic and delicious. Although I thought the fried green cherry tomatoes was a nice concept, there was a consensus that it didn’t really compliment the dish by flavor or texture. All else was lovely.
Another antipasti that we ordered was a lamb dish that came with ground lamb stuffed in savoy cabbage, lamb sausage, chanterelle mushrooms, and cocoa sauce. Our table had two versions of this, one of which was made gluten free. The birthday girl enjoyed the dish, but didn’t like the stuffed cabbage as much as the rest of the dish. I actually preferred the stuffed cabbage over the sausage. That worked out as far as sharing.
The menu had a heading called Piccolo which means small in Italian. The one item we ordered off this part of the menu was the chicken liver mousse with strawberry marmalade and balsamic gelatin. The mousse was in a cute glass jar and came with sliced toast that were about two inches thick. I made sure to spread the ingredients evenly to get all the flavor combinations. The sourdough baguette was tasty, but we all thought that two inch was too thick. We would have enjoyed something more like a crostini.
The primi or first course was the pasta dishes. After seeing a picture of the fettuccini on and showing it to my friends, we went ahead and got two orders of it. The smoked fettuccini came with sea urchin, smoked bacon, and a soft quail egg. This dish was quite delicate. The saltiness and smokiness came through perfectly and was so good. We did the right thing by ordering two of these.
The other pasta dish we had was the white corn ravioli with alba mushrooms, butter, smoked goat cheese, and chive. Unlike the fettuccini, the raviolis were hearty. The flavors were quite nice and tasty.
We ordered three main dishes. The sea scallop dish was made gluten free. It came with a purple cauliflower creme, abalone mushrooms, and swiss chard chips. It was thoroughly enjoyed by our friend.
One of the two entrees that I participated in was a king salmon that came with summer squash and cherry tomatoes. The salmon was a bit overcooked and the dish altogether was a little boring.
The final entree was aged squab with plum and onions. I don’t tend to eat squab often because it tends to be a bit gamey. Although it was cooked nicely it still came up short. I think both mains were non climactic after the delicious pasta dishes.
Desserts were next and we decided on two. One was the spiced bombolini, milk caramel, elderberry marmellata, and brown butter gelato. With the desserts, we were back to awesomeness.
My vote was for the albion strawberry, warm marsala zabaglione, marscapone gelato, and ladyfingers. The combinations of fruit, cake, and cream was light and hit the spot for me. I cleaned this one up.
Overall, I would recommend SPQR. The dishes were creative and beautiful. It was a great evening with good food, fun, and friends.
Finally, homemade marshmallows were presented to the table. We were already full, but when the kitchen brings out something complimentary, that makes a person feel special.