Taste of the Town
Impressive Homeland Connection
I’m not looking for anybody’s approval,” the host told us during our second visit to Borgo Italia. “My food is good.”
The speaker was Fabio Dalle Vacche: He manages the front of the house of this recent addition to Old Oakland’s tentatively resurgent dining scene. His confidence—bundled with an assertive panache that many, like my wife, Robin, will find endearing, even lovable—was not misplaced, in part because the food is not exclusively his. Dalle Vacche’s mother, Luigina, bestowed her family recipes on the restaurant and, early on, monitored their execution in the kitchen.
Get Dalle Vacche going, and he will take you on a dizzying spin through his culinary history, which snakes back f through his dining-consultant and restaurateur experience in New York City to his mother’s trattoria in Borgotaro, near Parma in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, to her parents’ kitchen in Liguria. He will then move forward to his meeting Paul Ferrari (of the A.G. Ferrari delicatessens) and collaborating with Ferrari to open Borgo Italia with pastry chef Franco Camboli, who hails from a bakery family in Tuscany.
During our first dinner at Borgo, a week or so earlier, Ferrari stopped by the table for a brief conversation. A man of more placid demeanor and fewer words than his maître d’, Ferrari concisely explained his inspiration for the restaurant: “I wanted to offer the kind of simple, homestyle dishes that I look for when I go back to Italy.” In Italian, that’s cucina casalinga, home cooking, deeply rooted in the culture of the countryside. And in Oakland, that’s a heartening alternative to the propensity for nudging traditional recipes a notch or three upscale and turning them into ethnic variations of California cuisine.
Our initial Borgo meal conformed to Ferrari’s stated goal of providing no-frills, comforting food. The most elaborate dish was the vibrant salad of mixed greens, radishes, pine nuts and tangy balsamic vinaigrette ($9). We enjoyed it with slices of Acme rustic baguette that we dipped into a small bowl of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and glasses of Cascina Val del Prete Barbera ($12) and Accordini Valpolicella ($13), the red wines chosen after our server, Jessica, brought us three generous tastes to sample. Our primi course (delivered simultaneously with our secondi in the only service glitch of the evening) was the Emilia-Romagna classic, tagliatelle ragu Bolognese ($15), brought to the table in a banged-up sauté pan and served family-style. You don’t get much more basic than ribbon pasta with meat sauce (although the other menu items that night did include such simple fare as gnocchi with pesto, spaghetti with butter and sage, a sautéed chicken breast, a hanger steak with mashed potatoes and three minimalist Neapolitan-style pizzas from the wood oven). The play of rustic flavors in Borgo’s Bolognese testified to mama Luigina’s influence and the soul-to-soul connection with the homeland. And from the contorni (side dishes) section of the menu, the ample portion of oven-roasted Brussels sprouts with smoked prosciutto ($9) provided pitch-perfect accompaniment.
If the spezzatino di vitello, veal stew, with carrots over creamy polenta ($17) paled slightly by comparison, my first impression of the tender meat and tomatoey sauce as under-seasoned was overturned the next day when I enjoyed the leftovers for lunch. Either the stew’s flavors had catalyzed overnight, or my taste buds hadre-sensitized. I wanted more.
All three dishes we devoured at our second dinner (the meal that was overseen by Dalle Vacche), were more than “good.” The antipasti Torta Fritta Emiliana ($15) had been recommended to us as “the stuffed bread,” which was slightly misleading. A square platter arrived with five large pillows of puffy fried dough and three jumbled piles of different thinly sliced salumi. Dalle Vacche explained that in Italy, huge platters of this would be brought out to snack on informally and endlessly at party time. The idea is to fold the cured meats into the wallet-like pockets of bread and munch away at the salty treat. We were still working on the appetizer when the silky roasted butternut squash soup ($9) arrived—one portion, thoughtfully served in two bowls—and stole our attention.
Then, on Dalle Vacche’s insistence, instead of the prosciutto-stuffed tortellini we originally ordered, came a generous serving of wide, hand-cut pappardelle tossed with rough-hewn basil pesto ($16). At one point Dalle Vacche walked by and asked, “Are you OK with that?” “OK” seemed an understatement. The humble al dente pasta had given Robin a new standard of perfection against which to judge all others.
While neither Dalle Vacche nor his mama may have had a direct hand in the glass of Accordini Valpolicella ($13) or the Negroni cocktail ($10) that Robin and I, respectively, nursed during dinner, those libations bear repeating. So does the no-nonsense panna cotta ($8)—vanilla-laced, not too custardy and served with no adornments in a broad-mouth canning jar. The only other dessert on offer, tiramisu, probably would have been overkill at that point.
If you go to Borgo Italia’s website, you might find your expectations raised by the profusion of menu items listed there: about a half dozen antipasti, a dozen pasta and risotto dishes and nearly as many contorni and secondi (mains), including wild boar stew, Luganega sausage and seafood soups. The whims of the chefs and the exigencies of the local markets will determine which fraction of that tempting roster will answer the roll call on any given day. That’s where Old World and new school converge.
The name Borgo refers to the social center of an Italian village, and Ferrari and Dalle Vacche have captured that vibe in the food and by bringing 1940s and ’50s farm tables, marble tabletops, wooden chairs, copper racks and wagon-wheel chandeliers from the old country and installing them with little pretense in a historic Oakland Victorian building. The result is an instantly homey setting for morning pastries and coffee, midday lunches, evening cocktails and full-on family-style meals. The scene doesn’t plead for approval. It’s simply good.
Borgo Italia Bar Caffè. Italian.
499 9th St. Oakland, 510-251-1008.
Serves lunch and dinner • 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Mon.–Sat.