Start Me Up
Bellanico Wins, Places and Shows
If anyone ever names a thoroughbred racehorse Bellanico, remind me to bet my 401(k) on the noble steed to win the Triple Crown. For one thing, it will break impressively fast out of the gate. In the middle furlongs, it will cruise comfortably in an elegant canter, making for a thoroughly enjoyable ride. And while it could finish with a flourish, it can afford to slow down because by then this colt or filly will have convincingly established itself as the class of the field. But if “Bellanico” remains the name of nothing more than the thoroughly enjoyable Italian restaurant and wine bar that opened in March, I’ll be more than satisfied, just as I’ve been on three visits to this early favorite in the running for Oakland’s best new restaurant of 2008.
When Robin and I made our way to the compact commercial strip of Park Boulevard between the MacArthur and Warren freeways, it seemed as if every foodie in Piedmont, Montclair and the immediate Glenview neighborhood had already discovered Bellanico, which replaced a flower shop next door to the popular Blackberry Bistro. And this was less than three weeks after its opening. Fortunately, we arrived early and were seated immediately at one of the wood-topped tables squeezed between the wall-length wood-slat-backed banquette on the left side of the narrow storefront and the bar that runs down the right side and conjoins the open kitchen. Attractively painted in a warm terra cotta color scheme, the room seats about four-dozen diners in quarters close enough that the collective din drowns out Bill Withers on the stereo system and much of whatever your dining partner is trying to say to you.
But our smiling, bright-eyed and unruffled server, Mariana, made us feel instantly comfortable as she almost gleefully guided us through the mostly Italian wine list, helping us select one flight of 3-ounce tastes (all “bold reds,” $14.50) and a (6-ounce) glass of organic Alois Lagedar Pinot Nero ($11), and explained the less-transparent choices on the menu. No, I didn’t know that mondeghili were fried meatballs ($5), a luscious blend of beef, pork and prosciutto with a crunchy cornmeal crust (talk about mouth feel!), but I swear on my Ghirardelli godparents’ grave that no meal of mine at Bellanico will ever be without them. Indeed, when Robin and I returned in May with four members of her extended family, we quickly asked Page (the servers remember your name, so why not return the courtesy) for two orders of each cicchetti (little starter) for the table, including the baccala mantecato ($4), creamy whipped cod on polenta squares; stuffed medjool dates ($4); tangy fried Sicilian green olives ($3); and crostini topped with fava bean and English pea puree ($4).
I could envision securing a place at the bar and spending the evening savoring nothing but starters and a flight or two of terrific wine. But then I can’t imagine passing up any opportunity to indulge again in the hearty secondi we enjoyed on our visits: risotto ($14) tinged green with nettles, made rich with Grana Padano (the “house cheese” that takes the place of the more common Parmigiano-Reggiano) and given a bright citrus bite with Meyer lemon; roasted Fulton Valley chicken ($15) that remains moist under browned skin and is garnished with olives and wedges of preserved lemon; two ample rectangular pieces of crispy black cod ($18) served atop Umbrian lentils studded with pancetta chunks; a huge slow-braised lamb shank ($17) with rich, tender meat that slides off the bone into the surrounding large, white corona beans, browned Brussels sprouts and red wine reduction sauce; and most notably for piggy me, the grilled pork loin chop ($17).
On our second visit, our perky server Tamara promoted this last entree as “heaven.” If there really is such a place, and they serve anything close to this meaty marvel—almost 2-inches thick, topped with grilled red onions, bedded on creamy polenta, drizzled with medjool date sauce and rivaling even the quintessential chops I’ve had at Oliveto, Wood Tavern and Kreuz’s Market in Lockhart, Texas—I’m calling for reservations now.
I must confess that even three belly-stuffing marathons failed to significantly penetrate the antipasti and primi portions of the Bellanico dinner menu; this, despite the presence of fried pork belly ($9) with shaved fennel, wild arugula, celery root, apple, and mustard seed vinaigrette, and orecchiette ($13) with pork ragu, arugula rabe and sweet onions. At our first dinner, we did somehow manage to polish off a generous plate of exquisite Berkshire prosciutto ($9) served with caper berries, bruschetta and Capezzana Estate extra virgin olive oil. And at our second, Robin succumbed to the gnocchi-family appeal of Swiss chard malfatti ($12), cheesy egg-sized dumplings in a pool of sage-infused brown butter—a crazily rich primi that served in this case as a secondi but would make for a better shared cicchetti.
Then there’s the dessert conundrum. This is where even Secretariat or Man o’ War would decelerate. Still, we’ve dipped our spoons into both the saffron panna cotta (in a high-ball glass, topped with peeled orange slices) and the warm chocolate date cake with vanilla bean gelato (both $6), and let’s just say they are fully worth loosening the cinch a notch or two. As for the formaggi plates ($4-$5 for individual cheeses, $12 for a selection), the widely applauded pinenut-honey tart and the tempting doughnut-like dessert called bomboloni ($6), well, there’s always lunch, I suppose.
As they say in racing parlance, Bellanico is out of Aperto, the Potrero Hill (San Francisco) restaurant also owned by Chris Shepherd and Elizabeth Frumusa. Clearly this bloodline (“Bella” and “Nico” are actually the nicknames of Shepherd and Frumusa’s daughters) is blessed. So is anyone within striking distance of executive chef Shepherd and chef de cuisine Jonathan Luce’s smartly conceived, appealingly and cheerfully presented and immensely pleasurable meals.
BELLANICO. Italian. 4238 Park Blvd., (510) 336-1180. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m. Mon.–Thu., 5:30 p.m.–10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.;
lunch 11:30–2:30 p.m. Tue.–Sat. www.bellanico.net. Credit cards, full bar, reservations (6 or more), wheelchaie accessable, $$-$$$
—By Derk Richardson
—Photography by Lori Eanes