La Dolce Vita at Agrodolce in Berkeley

The Trattoria La Siciliana sister needs serious work on service, though it lives up to the D’Alo clan’s reputation for classics.



Photo by Lori Eanes

When we arrived for our 6:30 reservation at Agrodolce on a Sunday evening, the foyer leading to the host podium was beginning to fill up. By the time we were finally seated in the nearest of the two bustling dining areas, nearly a half hour later, the mood in the wine-shelf-lined entranceway had grown restive: One drop-in party repeatedly complained that it had been waiting 20, 30, 40 minutes; others left after being told it might be an hour before they’d get a table. Time continued to be an issue throughout our meal—we sat for almost 15 minutes before our order was taken; there was a long gap between our primi (pasta) and secondi (entrée) courses; and Robin had to chase down the check another 15 minutes after our plates had been cleared. Timing tumbled to the level of farce during our second visit. And yet, just as the food at its 20-year-old sister restaurant, Trattoria La Siciliana in the Elmwood neighborhood, transcends the College Avenue institution’s intensely cramped and noisy quarters, so, with the exception of one forgettable rughetta salad, everything we ate during our two Agrodolce dinners made us forgive the hiccups in service.

The aforementioned salad, a loose composition of arugula, fennel, shaved carrot, goat cheese, and roasted pine nuts missed being as good as it sounded because there was too much carrot and too little lemon in the dressing. Other salads were tempting—blood oranges, fennel, red onion, and olives; spring mix with prawns, tomatoes, and shaved grana—but I suspect any dressing is going to pale when compared to the olio de la mama, the spicy, garlicky dipping oil made famous by Mama Rosa, matriarch of the East Bay D’Alo clan, at La Siciliana. It accompanies sliced Acme bread; be sure to ask for it.

Lori Eanes

Linguini con vongole macciato.

Angelo D’Alo, and his brother Gennuino (Jerry), spun Agrodolce out of La Siciliana, which was the offspring of the legendary Caffe Sport in North Beach. When they transformed the cave-like, almost windowless, fireplace-blessed space vacated by Café Gratitude into a homier, more culturally specific setting (Fellini flicks and other Italian films run silently on the back brick wall, now painted white), they infused it with a boisterous spirit of hospitality and a commitment to a Sicilian-centric menu. That means more citrus and Arabic and Moorish spices than crop up in other Italian cuisine, a thick Palermo-bred anchovy pizza (lo sfincione), and a seafood slant (calamari, octopus, prawns, clams, sardines, swordfish, ling cod) to the starters, antipasti, pastas, risotto, and entrées. Offerings change regularly in response to seasons and markets. A full bar—Negronis!—should be up and running by the new year.

Agrodolce (“sour and sweet”) does honor a few La Siciliana classics. On our first visit, we were hoping to find bucatini ’chi finucchiedé, a mind-blowing, down-and dirty pasta dish from Palermo, with fresh sardines, pine nuts, currants, sweet onion Sicilian anchovies, saffron, fennel, and toasted breadcrumbs. We’d seen it on the Agrodolce website menu. “The sardines are coming in next week, boss,” Angelo told me. “Big. Beautiful. Wait till you see them!” So we “settled” for the milder but delicious bucatini arriminatti, the al dente tubelike spaghetti tossed with cauliflower, pine nuts, currents, anchovy, and breadcrumbs. A side of two large, crusty but tender Sicilian meatballs, sloshing in a red sauce that was as vivid tasting as it was bright red, perfectly complemented the pasta at the bargain price of $6.

Lori Eanes

Ragu d'agnello.

We finished—yes, that means there was no room for dessert—with a secondi that now ranks first in my list of must-have main dishes: salsicci nostrana, a “wheel” of grilled house-made sweet fennel sausage (visualize a long tube coiled in a spiral) served with potato-like chunks of polenta whose blandness was overcome by tangy stewed red and orange pepperonata. The wines we chose from the nearly two dozen Italian and California varietals available by the glass, a 2010 Paso Robles Cirque Du Vin red blend and a 2012 Cesari Mara Valpolicella Ripasso, more than held their own against the rich, meaty meal.

Eight nights later we came back for the sardines. We felt like Rick and “the waters” in Casablanca; we were misinformed. We asked our server about the sardines. “Yes, we have them,” she said, and pointed to the white anchovies on toast among the snacks. Things went from amusing to troubling when the couple at the table a few inches away from ours left after being totally ignored for 20 minutes. The chaos got ridiculous after we gave what we thought was a clear order for how Robin and I wanted to share our dishes—first, the melenzane impanate antipasti (exquisite lightly breaded and fried eggplant with mozzarella and tomato sauce), then the ravioli porcini trifolati (porcini-stuffed ravioli in a fabulous mushroom wine-cream sauce), followed by the porchetta al’Fono (sliced, salty, slow-roasted pork shoulder) with a side of spicy broccoli rabe (off-menu that night, but always worth asking about). There was a long pause after the melenzane, and then the raviolis were delivered—to the new couple next door that had been seated 30 minutes after us. As we asked our server about our ravioli, another server brought the pork shoulder, which our server sent back to the kitchen, so we could have our primi before our secondi. Of course it took another 10 minutes, and the broccoli rabe arrived with the ravioli, not the pork, which was fine, because unbeknownst to us, the pork came with a heap of chard, as well as roasted potatoes.

Lori Eanes

Salcicci nostrana.

The overworked staff tried to stay cheerful while losing the battle to manage the increasingly busy dining room, but you could see the frustration in their body language as they took other misdelivered orders back to the kitchen. Again, however, the spectacular Sicilian flavors, the large portions, and the typically spot-on cooking were the saving graces. More wine—a couple of different Sicilian reds made with the lesser known Nerello grapes—helped, too, as did the dessert grand finale of a gorgeous gelato al’ limone, a hollowed-out Sicilian lemon filled with lemon gelato. It’s the star of a dolce menu that includes the more expected cannoli, tiramisu, affogato, panna cotta, and flourless chocolate torte. And it added a more sweet than sour exclamation mark to the sentiment that I’d rather live La Dolce Vita than have the trains run on time.

 

Photo By Lori Eanes

Angelo D'Alo hoists a pot of lamb shanks.

Agrodolce

Italian. 1730 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley,  510-848-8748. Snacks $5-$8, soups and salads $8-$10, antipasti $8-$14, primi (pastas)  $15–$18, secondi (meat and fish entrées)  $17-$21, contorni (sides) $6-$8, desserts $7-$8, wine by the glass $8-$15, by the bottle $30-$150. Serves dinner Wed.-Mon. 5-10 p.m. AgrodolceBerkeley.com CC☎$$$

 

Published online on Jan. 27, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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