Daily Archives: August 20, 2006

Whites with slight wood

I’m almost finished with Heat, and it’s driving me a little crazy. Last Thursday, Zack proposed that we eat at Tomatina, the local pasta joint around the corner from my house. I’d been craving Italian, but not just any Italian would do. See, when I go out and wind up eating bad pasta, it really bothers me. Actually, I get really angry. It fills me with rage, because it’s really easy to execute adequate pasta at home. Cook the pasta al dente, cook the sauce a little with the pasta plus some pasta water and bingo! A satisfying and adequate pasta dish. Executing it and elevating it into the stratosphere is another matter entirely, though. I wanted handcrafted pasta and maybe house cured salumi. I even wanted bistecca fiorentina. Since Babbo was over 2500 miles away and Tuscany would require crossing the Atlantic, I pondered the closest facsimiles. We’d eaten at Trattoria la Siciliana not long ago, and Pizzaiolo only offers two or three pasta dishes. Besides, both places were always packed and neither took reservations for two. It suddenly occurred to me… Oliveto! I’d picked up a sandwich downstairs for lunch before, but I’d always wanted to try their slightly more formal dinners upstairs. I love both of (former head chef) Paul Bertolli’s cookbooks (Chez Panisse Cooking and Cooking by Hand), and we’ve been snacking on his new line of salumi. From what I’d heard, the cooking hadn’t changed much since he’d departed last July. Plus, Oliveto (drum roll please) not only handcrafts its own wide selection of pastas, but they also cure their own salumi! I was also dying to try the ice cream down the street at Ici, run by Mary Canales (formerly of Oliveto and Chez Panisse, and the current head chef’s wife).

I was able to score an 8:15 dinner reservation, so off to Rockridge we went. There was a very slight delay in getting seated (walk-ins were being told there was an hour and a half wait), but the hostess was gracious and friendly. By all accounts, Oliveto’s service has been everything from frigid to pretentious. I wasn’t fazed, especially when I saw the menu.

Here’s what we ordered:

Salad with green beans, frisee, smoked paprika and almonds

Antipasti platter with olives, marinated zucchini, lonza wrapped grissini and agrodulci onion

Tagliatelle with sage and crimini mushrooms

Farro fettucini with pigeon liver, pancetta, marsala and thyme.

We drank a small carafe of 2003 Willamette Valley Freja Cellars Pinot Noir
and finished the meal with plum ice cream sandwiched between gingersnap cookies, drizzled with plum caramel sauce and sprinkled with candied ginger (ici still isn’t open yet.)

The salad and the antipasti with both good. The grean beans were perfectly cooked, and the antipasti was an excellent representation of sour, salty, sweet and bitter. I especially liked the lonza. But what I really chose Oliveto for was the pasta. The tagliatelli was barely dressed with browned butter and a whisper of sage. When I bit into a forkful of pasta and discovered a crisped sage leaf hidden between the folds, it shattered into an explosion of I dunno, saginess, that I wanted more of. At the same time, though, I realized that more sage would have overwhelmed the dish. The pasta itself was so delicate and thin, and the mushrooms were reduced and browned (how Buford describes cooking mushrooms) to an intesity that matched perfectly with the sage. The farro fettucini was bathed in just the perfect amount of marsala sauce. The pigeon livers were cooked to a perfectly pink and tender medium rare – they had none of the grainy ashiness you might associate with overcooked liver. Instead, they were sweet and barely solid. The farro pasta’s earthiness matched really well with the liver, and the pancetta made a crisp and salty counterpoint.

Zack and I agreed that the food was indeed excellent. It was very simple in the Daniel Patterson Chez Panisse hatin’ way but simple is what we want, especially when it comes to Italian food. Zack, who’s more of a stickler about these things, said that the service was a bit pretentious, but I was too busy enjoying my food to notice.

*the title, BTW, comes from the wine list, which classifies them under such descriptions as “medium bodied whites… with slight wood,” “rich, full-bodied whites with wood,” “medium-bodied neutral wines in neutral wood,” etc. Zack, upon noticing my snickering, simply said, “You are easily amused.”