Bauer slams Oliveto: A body blow? Or a misdirected punch?

Oliveto Chef Paul Canales directs the nightly testing of dishes prior to service at the restaurant.
Oliveto Chef Paul Canales directs the nightly "testing" of dishes prior to service at the restaurant. Photo by Carl Costas, Sacramento Bee

Like Hollywood actors, some chefs will claim that they don't pay attention to the critics. The reality, of course, is that they do.

A good review, in a prominent publication or media outlet, can help launch an upstart restaurant or attract new customers to an old one. A bad one can sink the newcomer or spell trouble for a venerated establishment.

Oliveto, the Italian restaurant in Oakland where I've been interning since April, has enjoyed its share of published praise. In her latest edition of the "Food Lover's Pocket Guide" to San Francisco and the Bay Area, food critic Patricia Unterman writes that Oliveto "sets the standard for Italian cooking in America."

Last month, the restaurant staff was buoyed by a glowing endorsement by Marcella Hazan, an author of several award winning Italian cookbooks. Writing in The Daily Beast, Hazan said she "would eat at Oliveto in Oakland every day" if she lived in the Bay Area.

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Yet those appraisals were quickly overshadowed last week when Michael Bauer, the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, published his first major review of the restaurant since 1996.

In a nine-paragraph column, Bauer said that his last two visits to the restaurant were disappointing. He criticized the service, the atmosphere and the food, and knocked the restaurant down from 3 1/2 stars to two.

"It could be that others have caught up and that Oliveto has slipped," wrote Bauer, noting the restaurant's legacy in inspiring other chefs and restaurants across the region.

When I arrived at Oliveto on Friday, the day after the review appeared, I expected the kitchen to be buzzing about the review. Instead, it seemed just like a normal day -- busy.

The restaurant's annual tomato dinners were less than a week away, and so chefs and cooks were scurrying about, making preparations for those elaborate suppers.

Yet as the morning wore on, it became clear that the review was the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Nobody wanted to touch it, but it was pretty hard to ignore.

Server Eric Schwier puts a shine on one of the workmanlike wine glasses at Oliveto.
Server Eric Schwier puts a shine on one of the "workmanlike" wine glasses at Oliveto. Photo by Carl Costas, Sacramento Bee

One server volunteered that customers were asking about it in the cafe on the morning it appeared. Another made a joke about the "workmanlike glasses" he was handling, a reference to one of the swipes in Bauer's review.

When Chef Paul Canales arrived in the kitchen, he seemed to be as chipper as normal. But then he spent some time with a business manager looking over past reservation lists. Both were trying to determine which night Bauer might have dined (based on the menu items he ordered) and who was cooking on various stations.

"I think I might have been cooking pasta that night," said Canales. "It might have been me!"

To be sure, it wasn't a complete surprise that the Chronicle was preparing a negative review. Bauer was a huge fan of former Oliveto Chef Paul Bertolli, who trained Canales and helped establish the restaurant's reputation. In 1996, Bauer gave Oliveto four stars for food and 3 1/2 stars overall, claiming that Bertolli was "producing the best Italian food in the Bay Area."

In 2005, however, Bertolli left Oliveto in a fallout with the owners and Canales was promoted to executive chef. As the Chronicle reported that year, Canales had actually been acting chef for some time, as Bertolli grew more interested in starting his own salumi business.

The trouble signs started in January. After eating cheap food in Texas and Oklahoma, Bauer filed a blog post questioning if Oliveto was overpriced.

A few months later, he dropped Oliveto from his Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants list, a choice that baffled at least one other food writer.

In his current review, Bauer clearly was disappointed with the restaurant's appearance and service.

"If you look around the room, you see the workmanlike glasses on the tables, worn and scarred chairs, and a service staff that on my visits seemed too small for the number of seats. The waiters are good but couldn't cover the room; we waited 15 minutes for wine and practically that long before anyone had enough time to check to see if we wanted dessert."

He also had little good to say about the food.

The treviso radicchio salad with lonza (cured pork tenderloin) was "sodden." The meatballs on one of the pastas were "mushy," as were the sand dabs on another plate, he wrote.

A tepid plate of pancetta-wrapped rabbit cost Oliveto some stars from food critic Michael Bauer.
A "lukewarm" plate of pancetta-wrapped rabbit cost Oliveto some stars from food critic Michael Bauer. Photo by Carl Costas, Sacramento Bee

"The pancetta-wrapped rabbit was lukewarm, and the braised butter lettuce underneath was cool in some spots and warm in others, arranged on the plate with a loose, red, juicy sauce. The spit-roasted pork loin ($28) is redolent of the farm and the fire, but the sour cherry and black currant compote stripped it of its natural flavor and the firm, freshly milled polenta and salty greens were a disserve to the succulent meat."

I can't argue with Bauer about the service and atmospherics. Oliveto's servers are terrifically knowledgeable about food, but sometimes they are so undermanned they must scramble to get plates out to the dining room. That's one reason the restaurant's carpets are frayed, one detail that escaped Bauer's eye.

I also don't doubt that Bauer was served some disappointing dishes on his last visit. I just question if those miscues were representative of what other customers experience.

Over the last five months, I've heard from dozens of readers, friends and acquaintances who've eaten at Oliveto. All have raved about the food and the service.

Any review of Oliveto needs to at least acknowledge the restaurant's innovations, such as its special dinners and use of old-world techniques. After years of eating in the Bay Area, I have yet to find a restaurant that offers Oliveto's variety of handmade pastas. If anything, Canales has improved the restaurant's pasta by working to procure the finest flours and eggs with the richest yolks.

It's also curious the bulk of Bauer's critique was based on a single visit to Oliveto, and that only one other guest accompanied him. At most big-city newspapers, restaurant reviewers invite at least two or three other people to join them, so they can sample the widest array of dishes. By not doing so, Bauer didn't give his readers a full sense of the Oliveto menu.

Among some at the restaurant, there's a suspicion that Bauer has a personal bias against Oliveto, and thus didn't invest much energy in reviewing it. "Ever since Bertolli left, he's had it in for us," said one of the cooks. "There is no way we can win."

Yet that sentiment is hardly universal. When I brought it up, one long-time server, Molly Surbridge, said it would be a mistake for the chefs and staff to get defensive.

"Some of his criticisms are valid," she said. "Instead of focusing on him, we should use his critique to figure out how to make this a better restaurant, not for him, but for us."

I found Molly's comment to be wise beyond her years. It's a reflection of why Oliveto is a special place to work.

The owners, chefs and servers take a lot of pride in what they do, but not to the point of avoiding introspection. Bauer's review, while off the mark in many ways, will undoubtedly spur Oliveto to engage in some healthy reflection.

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After all, if you run a restaurant, you constantly have to ask yourself: How can I make it better?

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