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Autumn on a Plate

Riva Cucina Finds Success in Berkeley


    I admit it. I’m biased. I’ve got a soft spot for husband-and-wife run restaurants. At their best, these mom-and-pop shops exude warmth and generosity that leave me feeling welcomed and well cared for. What’s more, the food often emanates a charm that comes from the couple’s personal touch and commitment to success.
    That’s the experience I had at Riva Cucina. Massimiliano (or Massi) and Jennifer Boldrini opened the west Berkeley restaurant this past April in a low-slung brick-and-steel building that once housed a spice factory in the Aquatic Park Center office complex. Now the building houses artists’ lofts
and biotech firms. The lush and meticulously maintained grounds are more Maui than industrial Berkeley. It’s a slightly off-the-beaten-track location, but it’s just the kind of low-overhead place for the Boldrinis to make their mark. And I think they will.
    Massi, 33, and Jennifer, 31, met when he was cooking at L.A.’s acclaimed Vicenti restaurant. Boldrini was just six days away from returning home to Italy, but Jennifer changed his mind. That was six years ago, and they’ve been together ever since.
    After traveling around Italy and moving to the Bay Area, the couple spent several years looking for a suitable (and affordable) restaurant location before they settled on west Berkeley.
    Massi Boldrini has been cooking for more than 15 years. He opened a restaurant in Italy, but this is his first in the United States. Except for a few waitress stints years ago, this is Jennifer Boldrini’s first foray into the restaurant business.
    Riva Cucina is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the simple, but handsome interior and the changing light shining through the square-paned glass create an attractive space any time of day. Other touches like the bookshelf of food and travel books, the eclectic art on the walls and the outside planter boxes sprouting fresh herbs and the last of the year’s cherry tomatoes add to the restaurant’s appeal. The restaurant worked with the neighboring preschool to plant the herb and vegetable boxes, which hem in the tables of the spacious and inviting outdoor patio.
    The restaurant serves a changing menu of seasonally inspired northern Italian food, especially that of Boldrini’s native Emilia-Romagna. In Italy, a riva is the place where water and land meet, and Riva Cucina also takes inspiration from its location at the edge of San Francisco Bay.
    There’s a simplicity that pervades much of Boldrini’s cooking. The ingredients shine brighter than the techniques used to prepare them. I’m still thinking of the burrata salad ($11.50). The cream-filled mozzarella was arrestingly sweet and rich yet still managed to be light and refreshing. Simple marinated cherry tomatoes, oak leaf lettuce and olive oil made for a perfectly understated accompaniment.
    The delicately poached prawn and squid salad with mâche and bell peppers ($11) and the baby greens salad with crispy pancetta and gorgonzola dolce-topped crostini ($9.50) were equally uncluttered and good.
    But the spare elegance of Boldrini’s approach skidded into flat-out blandness in the case of the garbanzo bean and lentil soups ($4 cup/$7 bowl). Not even a heavy hand with the saltshaker could bring these anemic soups to life.
    Pasta dishes were much stronger. Made with house-made spinach ravioli filled with mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and topped with a sultry sage–brown butter sauce, ravioli burro e salvia ($14) was autumn on a plate. I loved the hearty fusilli al polpio ($14) too, slow-braised octopus ragu served over sauce-trapping whole wheat fusilli. The meaty octopus took on the consistency of ground beef and worked perfectly as a kind of seafood-flavored Bolognese sauce. Only the sausage-and-shallot-filled ravioli ($14) failed to hit the mark. The edges of the billowy pasta were gummy and leaden.
    I liked the straightforward tonno alla griglia ($19), a big piece of grilled tuna served with roasted fingerling potatoes and peppery wild arugula.
    It’s nice to see a kids’ menu that includes more than grilled cheese and chicken nuggets. Riva Cucina offers things like tagliatelle Bolognese ($6), spinach gnocchi ($6) and grilled chicken with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella ($6). I ended up eating off my son’s plate because his tagliatelle was so good.
    Riva Cucina has the makings of a runaway success, but sometimes the wait staff struggles to keep up. During my visits there were sometimes long gaps between courses. But once our waitress made it back to our table, she was unfailingly friendly and knowledgeable about the food and wine.
    The wine list is short but filled with several excellent selections like the 2004 Zenato Valpolicella Classico Superiore ($8.50/$32). Too bad there aren’t more wines available by the glass.
    As for dessert, the panna cotta and chocolate fondant cake (both $5.50) were good, but not memorable. The torta della nonna ($5.50), however, stood out. Made with a fresh and light lemon cream and a coarse pine nut and almond crust, the delicious dessert didn’t last 60 seconds at my table.
    While Riva Cucina is still working out a few kinks, it’s easy to see the potential and passion in this joint venture. I’m pulling for them.
    RIVA CUCINA. Northern Italian. Serves breakfast 8 a.m.–11:30 a.m., lunch 11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Fri. 800 Heinz Ave., Berkeley, (510) 841-7482. Credit Cards accepted, beer and wine, reservations, wheelchair access, $$.
–By Stett Holbrook
–Photography by Lori Eanes

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