Pasta as Comfort Food, from Bellanico to Pizzaiolo

Centouno Taverna, Dopo, Enoteca Molinari, Desco, and Oliveto know a thing or two about pasta, too.


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Bellanico’s beet ravioli

Lori Eanes

Our favorite comfort foods are often those that we ate as kids. So perhaps it’s no surprise that in the case of pasta—one of the all-time top comfort foods—many of Oakland’s favorite versions can be traced back to an old family recipe. We touched base with a few of the city’s Italian restaurants for the story behind their signature pasta dishes (hint: there are a lot of Italian mothers and grandmothers involved).

Casunzei beet ravioli at Bellanico
Bellanico executive chef Jonathan Luce laughs when he recalls a well-traveled customer who insisted that the restaurant’s most popular pasta dish wasn’t authentically Italian. “It’s a centuries old recipe from the northern Italian, Venice, area,” he says. “A lot of our dishes can be classified in that Cal-Italian category, but this isn’t one of them.” Still, it’s easy to understand the mistake: The vibrant red color of the puréed beet (mixed with ricotta, egg, and bread crumbs) shines through the ultra-thin housemade pasta and practically screams “California fresh.” Indeed, Luce says it’s a dish that’s won over a lot of skeptics. “We’ve converted many a beet-hater to a beet-lover.”
4238 Park Blvd., Oakland, 510-336-1180, www.Bellanico.net.

Gnocchi al pesto at Centouno Taverna
Fabio dalle Vacche, owner of the new Centouno Taverna near Jack London Square isn’t afraid to give credit where credit is due: The recipe for his taverna’s gnocchi pesto was taken directly from his mother. Not that there’s any shame in that—Luigina ran the family restaurant near Parma in Italy for decades and flew stateside to help implement Centouno’s menu. Pesto actually originated in the Liguria region where dalle Vacche was born, and while the dish’s light, bright flavors may seem straightforward; making it is anything but. “People love it; it’s an icon of Italian cooking, but it’s not simple,” he says. “It takes a lot of time; we spend about two hours each day making everything from scratch.”
101 Broadway St., Oakland, 510-433-5030, www.Centouno101.com.

Lasagna alla ravanusa at Dopo
An odd byproduct of Italian restaurants getting hipper is that it’s gotten harder and harder to find that classic standby of the cuisine, lasagna. Not so at Dopo, where the lasagna alla ravanusa is a staple of the frequently changing menu. Dopo’s baked version is densely packed with ricotta and a rich, almost creamy, beef-and-pork ragu, layered between homemade egg noodles. Owner John Smulewitz says it’s inspired by a version made by the mother of a butcher friend of his in Sicily (from the small town of Ravanusa, thus the name). “In Italy, every region has its own take on lasagna, and it’s generally something that families eat at home on Sunday,” Smulewitz says. “It’s a very comforting dish, there’s a lot of labor involved in making it. I think that’s why people seem to enjoy it.”
4293 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-652-3676, www.DopoAdesso.com.

Orecchiette con le cime di rapa at Enoteca Molinari
Among the many endearing traits of Joe Madison’s intimate Rockridge eatery, Enoteca Molinari, is the menu’s lighter, veggie-oriented focus. The orecchiette is a perfect example. Finely chopped rapini takes center stage, lending a fresh, slightly bitter note to a light garlic and anchovy–enriched broth. The dish hails originally from Puglia, where executive chef Angelo Verde worked for several years as a chef—and where he learned to make the ear-shaped pasta from the restaurant’s team of pasta-making grandmas.
5474 College Ave., Oakland, 510-428-4078, www.Enoteca-Molinari.com.

Pork and amaretto crumbs ravioli at Desco
Desco chef-proprietor Donato Scotti grew up near Milan in Italy, where this unique ravioli dish is a specialty. Scotti’s version, based off his grandmother’s recipe, uses a housemade sausage made with pork, prosciutto, and mortadella mixed with amaretto-soaked breadcrumbs for the filling. Amaretto might seem like an odd choice, but Scotti says the Italian liqueur balances the fattiness of the sausage, while adding slight sweet and bitter notes to the dish. Salty bits of smoked guanciale and a brown butter-sage sauce complete the decadent picture.
499 Ninth St., Oakland, 510-663-9000, www.DescoOakland.com.

Red winter wheat penne alla bolognese at Oliveto
Owner Bob Klein is passionate—some might say obsessed—with the sourcing of his ingredients to the point that he founded his own line of Community Grains flour, polenta, and pasta that’s specially made from local California farmers and mills. The red winter wheat penne is a case in point, and its hearty, ruddy texture and taste stand up perfectly to the robust bolognese made with beef and pork. It’s a trademark example of the rustic yet refined fare that’s made Oliveto an Oakland favorite for more than 25 years.
5655 College Ave., Oakland, 510-547-5356, www.Oliveto.com.

Spaghetti with clams at Pizzaiolo
Word to the wise: If you find this southern Italian dish on the menu, just order it. Pizzaiolo sources its clams strictly from Hog Island, which means availability varies. But there’s a reason the Temescal restaurant is so picky: The Tomales Bay oyster company harvests its clams younger than most, adding a distinct sweetness to the bivalves’ briny salinity. And it’s that pure, essence-of-the-sea flavor—spiked with ground chili and garlic—that permeates the al dente housemade spaghetti and makes this dish one of Pizzaiolo’s most sought-after. “It’s all about the clams: The brine that they release when they open is the sauce,” says sous chef Ben Harris. “It’s so simple, but it means that if the clams aren’t amazing, the pasta won’t be amazing—there’s nowhere to hide.”
5008 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-652-4888, wwwPizzaioloOakland.com.


 

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