Lungomare Gets Ital-Cal Cuisine Right

Chris Pastena in partnership with chef Craig DiFonzo put a hotel restaurant into a league of its own with locally sourced, market-driven ingredients.


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Rib-eye steak.

Photo by Lori Eanes

When we first ate at Lungomare, a few months after it opened four years ago, we weren’t all that impressed—by the food or the service. But when we revisited the California-Italian restaurant last January, for its Oakland Restaurant Week special, it was evident that steps had been taken to bring everything up to a higher standard. So we returned recently for a deeper dive.

The first evening, a typical Oakland summer evening with seagulls arcing through veils of fog darkening the blue sky, we sat inside and took advantage of the Sunday Wine Down Dinner, a fixed-price, three-course meal (like the Restaurant Week deal) that provides an appetizer, soup, or salad; a secondi (pizza, pasta, or entrée); a dessert; and all the wine you want—all for $30.

On our second visit, while Robin reprised the Wine Down bargain, I splurged by starting with a cocktail and bowl of steamed mussels and worked halfway through a rib-eye steak (the most expensive food item on the menu at $39), accompanied by a glass of wine. My indulgences jacked up our bill up to a more special-occasion-like $100 or so. But the tariff included a dinner show, as well. We sat outdoors in one of Lungomare’s two patios and were treated to a riveting visual spectacle: a sunset parade of tourists and Oaklanders—some provocatively and scantily dressed as they peacocked like models on a runway toward a party boat waiting to embark—along the Jack London Square waterfront.

Lungomare is part of Chris Pastena’s uniquely Oaklandish mini empire, which began in the JLS warehouse district with Chop Bar and extended to Uptown with the Oaxacan-inspired Calavera. Pastena also partnered with Tom Henderson to open Tribune Tavern and Lungomare, but the two restaurateurs went separate ways at the end of 2014, leaving Henderson to helm Tribune Tavern and Pastena to elevate Lungomare in partnership with chef Craig DiFonzo.

While Scott’s Seafood, Kincaid’s, and Yoshi’s have endured, and Plank has found a successful combination of family entertainment, sports, and pub grub, Jack London Square has not kindly rewarded many ambitious newcomers. The fallen include Encuentro, Cocina Poblana, Bocanova (moving to Uptown), Jack’s Oyster Bar and Fish House, Haven (planning to transform into Alta), and Miss Pearl’s Jam House, which had a four-year run in the space that houses Lungomare. That’s not an encouraging track record, and I don’t know how the smart money would foresee the future.

Still, based on our two dinners, and Pastena’s own track record, I’m inclined to bet on Lungomare’s longevity. The restaurant is prisoner to the architecturally awkward shapes of the Waterfront Hotel’s wrap-around ground floor. One wing is given over to the bar and lounge. The main dining room occupies a separate wing, closer to the estuary. It sits at the end of a corridor to the left of the main entrance and greeter’s podium and offers views of boats slowly coursing by on the water, with Alameda in the background. In some superficial details, including the furnishings and the inclusion of a casual cafe for light bites and coffee, Lungomare indeed looks like a hotel restaurant. But Pastena and DiFonzo’s menus (brunch, lunch, dinner) and commitment to locally sourced, seasonally changing, market-driven ingredients put the place in a league of its own.

Photo By Lori Eanes

Mushroom Pizza

For the Sunday Wine Down Dinner, you can choose from five antipasti, six secondi, three desserts, and four wines on tap (a Sonoma rosé, an Italian Pinot Grigio, an Italian Barbera, and a Rock Wall “Super Oakland” Sangiovese-Cabernet). Among the starters, we found the lentils and pork zuppa del giorno, the organic mixed greens with roasted baby beets, Marcona almonds, goat cheese, and red wine vinaigrette, and the frito misto—lightly battered and fried smelts, calamari, padron peppers, lemon wheels, and romesco—as precise and pleasing in flavor as they were in presentation. Also offered were red flint polenta with forest mushrooms and marscapone, and burrata and house-smoked salmon served with fennel crackers.

Of the three Wine Down entrées we tried, Robin scored well twice, first with a slightly blistered, puffy-edged, thin-crust pizza topped with a rich blend of meaty hen of the woods and king trumpet mushrooms, caramelized onions, fontina, thyme, and truffle oil, and the next Sunday with a small, square filet of king salmon beautifully poised atop cauliflower purée and broccolini. My subtly smoked brisket, at the first dinner, was a slight miss, though; some of the thin slices, piled artlessly on a puddle of soupy polenta, were overcooked and ropey, and none had that unctuous, falling-apart texture of brisket at its best. After a second and third pour of Barbera, my disappointment waned. Of the three Wine Down desserts, all plated prettily, the TCHO chocolate budino, with salted caramel and whipped Chantilly cream, outshone the creamy Meyer lemon cheesecake and the gelato trio (deep dark chocolate, rich vanilla, and marscapone).

When we dined outside, with a stately stand of palms rising from nearby raised patches of lawn into the orange dusk, Robin continued her enjoyment of the Rockwall Sangiovese-Cab while I sipped an elegantly balanced barrel-aged Boulevardier (white rye, Carpano Antica, Campari), one of more than a dozen enticing house cocktails. It was a busy Sunday night, and the service, which had been nearly perfect indoors a week earlier, gradually fell out of synch. Main courses arrived before we were halfway through the starters. When I noted that the otherwise wonderful steamed mussels (24 in a garlicky, chili-spiked, tomato broth, with a big slab of grilled Tuscan bread) didn’t have any butter beans as advertised, our server countered, mistakenly, “They must not have been on the menu.” She then went MIA, and it took forever to get a glass of Barbera to go with my dry-aged rib-eye (delicious despite being cooked medium-to-medium-well rather than medium-rare). And at one point, a food runner, scuttling frantically between tables, actually broke into a jog.

On future visits, and there will be many, one or the other of us might be tempted by grilled baby octopus (that would be me, not Robin), a pizza with prosciutto and figs, orecchiette or bucatini with veal, pork, and beef Bolognese, Ligurian seafood stew, a half rotisserie chicken, or a plate of artisanal cheeses or house-cured charcuterie. Chances are, however, that we’ll be back most often for the Wine Down Dinners. “Lungomare” might translate literally from the Italian as seashore promenade, but in Oakland it means the best dinner deal in town.

Lungomare

Italian/Californian. 1 Broadway, Jack London Square, Oakland, 510-444-7171. Soup and salads $11-$13, antipasti $6–$16, panini and sandwiches $11-$16, lunch entrées $16-$23, pizza $18-$20, pasta $17-$21, secondi $27-$39, cheese and charcuterie plates $6-$48, cocktails $10-$12, wine by the glass $10-$14, bottle $40-$65. Serves brunch Sat.-Sun. 9 a.m.-3 p.m., lunch Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner Sun.-Wed. 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m., Thu. 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. www.LungomareOakland.com CCG☎ $$-$$$$

 

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