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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New Pub on the Block: Aisle 5

Aisle 5 is a newly opened pub located in Oakland’s Grand/Lakeshore District. They serve twenty craft beers on tap and have a food menu focused on cooking from a wood fired oven and grill. Aisle 5 is Tina Wadhwa’s first business venture and she is likely the first East Indian woman to open up a pub in the area.  
I stopped by a couple weeks after they opened and had some trouble navigating through the business. The way things work is that you order at the counter, get a number, claim a seat, and your food comes to you. This might work well in a food court, but for me it didn’t at Aisle 5. My friend and I ordered drinks first. I got a refreshing local cider from Healdsburg and my friend had a glass of wine. We sat down and took a menu with us. When we decided on what to eat, I had to get back in line at the counter to order and it was five or six people deep. I can say it was partly my fault since I didn’t know what I wanted to eat from the start and wasn’t prepared for the “food court system.”

Nonetheless, our food came and I was happy. Chef Mark Scott is behind the pub menu. The first item that arrived by number was the chimichurri shrimp and it was wonderful. It was grilled to perfection and included a tomato and cucumber salad that was a nice companion piece. It was my favorite dish of the evening.

We also shared the smoking duo which is both chicken wings and baby back ribs. You get to select the sauces for both meats. I went with buffalo wings and habanero baby back ribs. The chicken wings fell flat for me because it was not crispy leaving a very soft rubbery skin. The ribs however was a redemption as they were cooked well and packed a lot of flavor. I really enjoyed the apple jicama slaw. If that is a definition of slaw, this would be my favorite preparation. At one point, Chef Mark stopped by to say hello, so I took the opportunity to inquire about the slaw. He revealed that he added a little honey to sweeten this side dish. 


With Boot and Shoe Service next door and The Star on Grand across the street, I was a bit wary about ordering pizza from Aisle 5. But they had the wood fired oven and an extensive pizza menu, So I wanted to give it a try. I got the smoked sausage and mushroom pizza. Sure the toppings were good, but I was pleasantly surprised by the flavor of the pizza crust. I even ate some of my friend’s leftover pizza crust (she is watching her carbs). I wouldn’t say that the pizza is better than Boot & Shoe Service, but it is an excellent alternative in the neighborhood.


I’m really hoping that Aisle 5 considers the feedback and hire some excellent wait staff to pull everything together. They’ve got a lot going for it- great food and drinks, perfect location, and a nice space.  
*Disclosure- this meal was comped, but writer has made every effort to remain objective.

Gather in Berkeley

Today is day 7 of me rejoining Weight Watchers. I am carrying some extra weight that I hope to shed. I have been carrying those extra pounds even through running my recent half marathon. I realize that if I lose those pounds, I could PR! (Personal Record or beat my previous time.) My first experience with the Weight Watchers Program was over four years ago and it was a good one. What I like about Weight Watchers is that I can still eat good food, but in moderation.  

A large portion of my daily points today was consumed during brunch at Gather in Berkeley. Gather is a restaurant focused on sustainability which was the perfect location for my bookclub to discuss Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us.” The book makes you think about the carbon footprint we leave behind.  
Since I was doing pretty well the past week and was combining breakfast and lunch, I ordered a Bloody Mary. It was a nice treat and thought it was well worth the five points.  
Our group decided to share a breakfast pizza which included bacon and eggs, caramelized onions, and oregano. This was my first time having pizza at Gather. I requested a slice with egg and enjoyed the runny yolk. It definitely felt like breakfast. I was pleasantly surprised by the slight kick. I also liked the shape and edges of the pizza crust which left for more crispy opportunities. 
For my main, I was looking for something that didn’t have too many carbohydrates. I decided on the hominy & bean soup. This was both vegan and gluten free. I actually enjoyed the flavors very much. Honestly after having the one slice of pizza, the soup was both filling and satisfying.  
One of my friends had the shiitake mushroom scramble which came with crispy potatoes and a wonderful shallot herb buttered toast. She mostly enjoyed it as the eggs were a bit overcooked.
Two of my friends at the table ordered the walnut French toast with fresh berries and house made mascarpone. The plates were left clean, so I know how they felt about their French toast.  I had a small bite to taste and loved the flavor, but was not fond of the density.  

I thought the Amber wheat pancakes that my best friend ordered was the star of brunch. It came with poached apricots and house made ricotta. After a sample taste, I decided to eat the last bite when my meal was over because it was like ending with a fabulous dessert or a sweet note.
I estimated 5 points each for the Bloody Mary, the small slice of breakfast pizza, and the hominy and bean soup, and 1 point each for the small sampling of pancake, French toast, and herb buttered toast. That totals 18 points which isn’t too bad for an event where I was combining breakfast and lunch.  All in all, it was a great place to Gather.  I would just need to be mindful about dinner.

Exploring Fournée Bakery in Berkeley

Located on Domingo Avenue in Berkeley across from the historical Claremont Hotel, is a small business community of food and shops. Tucked in this neighborhood is a French bakery serving some of the best croissants. It was about a year ago when my friend introduced me to Fournée Bakery when she brought me two croissants – the ham and egg croissant and a traditional croissant.

A true test of a good French bakery is to examine the traditional croissant. The croissant at Fournée was perfect – light, flakey, and buttery. It transported me back to Paris. The ham and egg croissant is a best seller that I enjoyed. The ham is cut thick and cooked to a crisp giving you the impression that you’re eating bacon. With the egg in the center, you have a full breakfast in your hand. A medium cooked egg would be my preference.  


Since the introduction, I have been back to Fournée a few times. I normally enjoy savory items, but I have a weakness for chocolate croissants. The pain au chocolat at Fournée are to die for. It has the right amount of chocolate in the center of the flakey, buttery exterior.  


Fournée also serves two kinds of pizza – one vegetarian option and a Pepperoni. I had a slice of the pepperoni pizza. Although I had to pat down the pizza with a napkin to remove some of the excess oil, I still enjoyed it. A good bakery can definitely make a good crust.


Aside from traditional items, I appreciate the fact that Fournée also makes seasonal items. Recently, I had a delicious pastry filled with asparagus and scallions. I did not leave a crumb as I took delight in cleaning up the bottom of my bag which was filled with sunflower seeds and crispy pastry flakes.


There is so much more to explore at Fournée that I feel like I have just begun. My tip is to go early because they do run out of items. At the same time, don’t fret as whatever you are left with is another chance to explore something you may not have tried.  

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!
  

Star on Grand: Pizza You Want to Know

The first time I dined at Star on Grand, a pizzeria near Lake Merritt in Oakland, it was over two years ago when they first opened. I was with my best friend and we shared one pizza. I remember thinking that it was really good, but I would have to go back to explore more of their menu. Today was the day I finally went back for lunch with my book club.  

We shared a large Goddess salad which is made of baby greens, chives, and toasted almonds tossed in a creamy pesto dressing. It was a simple, but I enjoyed the crunch of the almonds and the flavor and creaminess of the dressing.    

Star has a reputation for serving excellent Chicago style deep dish pizza. We ordered The Port which has toppings of sausage, mushrooms, onions, and green bell peppers. The tomato sauce that covered the pizza was chunky and well balanced. The biscuit-like crust held everything together nicely. It is not my favorite style of pizza, but I enjoyed this version. 
 If memory serves me correctly, I had a thin crust pizza from Star the first time I visited. On this occasion, the thin crust we ordered was the Adam’s Point which has pepperoni, salami, onions, green bells, black olives, and pepperoncinis. The combination of toppings were an awesome explosion of flavor. The crust was chewy, but the bottom of the pie maintained its crispness with the inclusion of cornmeal.  
 The pizza at Star on Grand is fresh and high quality. I recommend going with a larger group so you can try out different styles and toppings. If you are in Albany or San Francisco, visit Little Star, the sister pizzerias.  

Seattle Spots You Don’t Want to Miss

I spent 3 1/2 days in Seattle and 2 1/2 of those days were to attend the International Food Blogger’s Conference (IFBC). This left little time to eat out, but I did manage to squeeze in two new places and make return visits to two others.

The IFBC was filled with evening activities, so I was only able to eat out for dinner my first night. We ate at a sushi restaurant called Tsukushinbo located in the International District. Luckily we had reservations for our party of three so we didn’t have to wait.  

The sushi was fresh and reasonably priced. There was nothing fancy about this place. It was more of a neighborhood type restaurant. My favorite items were the Ora King Salmon sashimi and the uni, sea urchin. This New Zealand salmon was smooth and buttery. The uni tasted like it was fresh out of salt water, but ironically it came from Santa Barbara which I know produces some of the best uni.  

Here’s a collage of the dishes we shared. 
 The other place I tried for the first time is Humble Pie located on the outskirts of the International District. I would call Humble Pie a pizza shack.   
 You order at the window and can eat either in the partially enclosed space or completely outdoors. We ordered the pizza with sopressata, mushroom, kalamata olives, mozarella, and tomato sauce. It ranks pretty high in the thin crust wood fire oven pizza category in my book.  
 I had an hour and a half break for lunch from the conference on one day so I walked over to the famous Pike Place Market. I stood in line at Beecher’s, a cheese shop that also sells a few specialty items like mac and cheese, sandwiches, and soups. I think of them as the Cowgirl Creamery of Seattle. I previously had indulged in their “world’s best mac and cheese.” I wouldn’t call it the world’s best. I decided this time to get their grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. It was a great combination and hit the spot on this somewhat gloomy Seattle day. My tip for the soup is to either skip the croutons or ask for them on the side.

 
The number one thing that comes to mind when I hear the word Seattle is not rain or the Seahawks. It is the donuts from Dahlia’s Bakery. Ok, the second thing is the coconut cream pie. But I seriously cannot get enough of these freshly made to order pillows of goodness. They come hot out of the fryer and are doused in sugar before you get to add the mascarpone cheese and homemade jam. Yum! Go ahead and also order the coconut cream pie.  It’s good to have the ying and the yang.

 
Seattle is a great food city and such a perfect location for the IFBC.