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.  


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.

Manti: A Turkish Delight

Last night I was at a cooking party and the theme was Turkish food. When I learned of the theme, I immediately thought of making manti or meat filled dumplings. I found a recipe online and winged the instructions as I was making them. I had some trouble rolling out the dough, the manti needed more salt, and it seemed to have taken a very long time. Although everyone seemed to have enjoyed the dumplings, I wanted to improve my skills. Since I still had meat filling, I decided to give myself a manti mulligan and have a do over this evening.

2 cups flour
2 eggs
1/4 cup of water
1/2 cup of ground beef
1/2 cup of finely chopped onions
8 oz of plain yogurt
1 clove minced garlic
salt and pepper
2 tbsp of your favorite chili oil

1. To make the dough, pour two cups of flour and 1/2 tsp salt in a mixing bowl. Add 2 eggs and blend together with your hands. Once eggs are mixed in you, will need to add approximately 1/4 of water to get the dough to form a ball and not stick to your hands. If it gets too wet, add a little more flour. If it gets too dry, add a little more water. Once you get the dough to the correct consistency, cover your bowl with Saran Wrap and set aside for at least 30 minutes.
2. Using a cheesecloth or a lot of paper towels, squeeze out the water content from the finely chopped onions. In a bowl, mix the onions to your ground beef and then season with salt and pepper.
3. With some practice with my friend’s late father’s pasta maker last night, I did not have to pull out a rolling pin this evening. Divide the dough into four pieces using one piece at a time. Put the remaining dough back in the bowl covered with the Saran Wrap. This keeps the dough from drying out. Roll out the dough in a pasta maker on a thin setting or as thin as you can get with a rolling pin.
4. On a floured surface, using a pastry cutter or a knife, cut the sheets into 1 x 1 inch squares.
5. Fill each pasta square with a small dab of the meat filling.
6. One at a time, take a meat filled square and pull each of the four corners diagonally to the center and squeeze the four sides closed. Place it on a floured baking sheet and repeat until done.
Now that you’ve made 1/4 of your dumplings, repeat steps 3, 4, 5, and 6 until you’ve made all the dumplings.

7. Add the dumplings to a large pot of boiling water. Add 1/2 tsp salt. When all the dumplings float to the top, cook for another minute and then remove them from the water onto a large platter.
8. Mix the minced garlic into the plain yogurt before spooning on the manti.

9. Drizzle your favorite hot chili oil on the manti.

10. Enjoy!
The second time was a charm! The making of them was much smoother than last night. They were better seasoned as well. I love these little dumplings. I have been to a few Turkish restaurants in my life, but never had them as good as these homemade ones I made myself. I guess I’ll have to travel to Turkey to find better.

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.

Zero Zero Doesn’t Reflect a Rating

Arriving early to a restaurant has its advantages.  As I waited for my Food Companion (FC) to arrive to Zero Zero in San Francisco, I perused the cocktail menu.  I immediately settled for the Pisco Sour remembering a similar drink at Restaurant Camino in Oakland that I enjoyed.  Pisco Sour is a cocktail containing pisco, lemon or lime juice, egg whites, simple syrup, and bitters.  The bartender has to shake this drink intensely in order to get the egg white to foam.  I thought he did a great job as I watched.  He even decorated the Zero Zero logo using the bitters on top of the foam.

Zero Zero got it’s name from the flour used to make pizza in Naples, Italy.  It refers to how finely ground the flour is.  Zero Zero uses this type of flour to make their pizza and pasta. 

My FC and I agreed to do the sharing thing.  We started with a salad with arugula, beets, avocado, blood orange, radish, in a citrus vinaigrette dressing.  This was simple and began to wet our palettes.

The wood oven roasted baby fava beans came out next.  This dish really shows how hot the wood oven can get since you can eat the shells.  It was topped with breadcrumbs and gremolata, a mixture of flavorful herbs.  It was another good starter.

The sweet pea agnolotti is the pasta dish we agreed on.  It is basically a thin ravioli that is filled with sweet pea and topped with a sauce made of pancetta, Meyer lemon, more sweet pea, and mint.  This was amazing.  The agnolotti was so delicate and basically melted in my mouth.  Must be the zero zero flour.

Our pizza came out next which was the Margherita extra.  It is a normal Margherita with the extra something something being buffalo mozzarella.   The crisp and chewy crust and the flavors of these basic toppings are harmonious.  I didn’t mention that Zero Zero is owned by Chef Bruce Hill who also owns Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur. 

Just like at Pizzeria Picco, you can get Strauss soft serve at Zero Zero.  But here they’ve turned it up a few notches.  You can build your own soft serve sundae. 

We chose vanilla ice cream, a date coffee cake as a base, caramel and toffee toppings, and a side of chamomile poached strawberries.  I was in heaven. 

Between my FC and I, four thumbs up for Zero Zero.