Oakland's Dopo Reinvents Its Menu, Serves Up Authentic Sicilian Food

Dopo's tuna crudo (Kim Westerman)

Given the American obsession with regional cuisines, Italian being one of the most thoroughly represented, it's surprising that Sicily has not gotten its due in the Bay Area. We've got SPQR and Locanda dishing up Roman food, La Ciccia occupying Sardegna, Rose Pistola still cooking Ligurian-style, Da Flora conjuring Venice, and A16 cornering the market on Campania. But Sicily, the largest island in the whole Mediterranean, has somehow gotten short shrift. Until now.

Actually, Jon Smulewitz, chef and co-owner of Dopo with his wife, Kayta Smulewitz, has been creating Sicilian-leaning menus since the casual, always-buzzing spot opened 12 years ago on Oakland's Piedmont Avenue. Jon's grandfather is from Montalbano in the Province of Messina and his grandmother hails from Petralia Soprana in Palermo, and Jon and Kayta visit the island regularly. Over the years, they've made friends with winemakers and restaurateurs, so Jon thinks this transition was somewhat inevitable. Still, it seemed like a big plunge to return from a trip and say to his staff, "Let's go for it. Let's offer an entirely Sicilian menu right down to the wine list."

Outside seating at Dopo
Outside seating at Dopo (Kim Westerman)

And while they were at it, they converted to a no-tipping policy as well. So, if the prices seem high, remember: Your tip is already figured in. And this cooking is at such a high level, it's worth every penny.

The most noticeable change is the design of the menu, whose centerpiece is now antipasti. You have the choice of selecting the cold or hot set ($19 per person for either or $35 for both). Each set is comprised of six perfect bites. It doesn't sound as filling as it is.

We started with both hot and cold, and the cold set items arrived in fairly rapid succession, beginning with a beautiful tuna crudo, room-temperature, cubed fish mixed lightly with thin slices of Valencia orange, cayenne, oregano and celery.

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Next up was a caponata without eggplant, which is not yet in season. Carrot was the base, supported by capers, celery, mint and red wine vinegar, in a tomato sauce made mostly from paste, we learned from our server, who knew the minutiae of each dish.

Dopo's dining room
Dopo's dining room (Kim Westerman)

The next two dishes were the epitome of simplicity. Steamed clams with white wine and parsley and pickled artichokes did not need to be deconstructed to be enjoyed. More nuanced was the pork confit with fennel, sultanas, cayenne and honey, served on a crisped square of bread. Finally, ricotta made in the kitchen that morning (from Clover organic milk and cream) was the dish we kept coming back to in between other bites -- by itself, on bread, or with a little salt and olive oil.

We were so delighted by the cold set that I didn't want to get my hopes up that the hot could match up. But if anything, they were even more satisfying, especially given the sunny week had just turned gray and cold.

The first to arrive were the sand dab frittelle, little savory pancakes (as opposed to the many Italian sweet fritters around), with just fish, flour, egg, salt and pepper. Stuffed artichokes were more elegant than anything I could ever make in my own kitchen: small wedges of artichoke with a blend of tomatoes, egg, bread, pecorino, and garlic on top, baked until brown. Then came the cazzilli, which were a dead ringer for arancini (a risotto-based fritter). These were made from potato and pecorino with just a dusting of bread crumbs to allow them to brown when fried. Perhaps the oddest dish was the kale polpette, a blend of kale, egg, bread and chile all put through the meat grinder, then fried up and served with a single currant on top. The bright vegetal green color gave way to a more mellow, cooked-kale flavor. The last two dishes were dried fava beans, stewed and served with grated ricotta salata, and, one of my favorites of the whole evening, cuttlefish pieces fried in semolina and flour, moistened with buttermilk.

These antipasti really are about a bite per person, so it behooves one to move on to the rest of the small menu. We shared two half-portions of pasta, a mezze rigatoni with cuttlefish in its ink, and sand dab, tossed in an aromatic fish broth with a tiny bit of chile flakes and finished with pecorino. The pasta, a translucent black, was spot-on al dente, and the ink gave the whole dish a mild sea essence, naturally salty and richer than squid ink. We shared an equally complex busiate (a long, thickish noodle) with a ragu made from pork head and ribs braised with tomatoes, parsley chiles and a little tripe.

Though we could hardly eat another bite, we pressed on to the rare-seared tuna agrodolce (sweet and sour sauce), topped simply with red onions.

Dessert was a few bites of a classic Sicilian torta made with pistachio, currant and ricotta, and moist even the next morning for breakfast.

The wine list is all Sicilian, too. The 2011 Murgo Nerello Mascalese Brut Rose has the gorgeous minerality typical of Etna wines and would go with anything on this menu. The Occhipinti blend of Albanello and Zibibbo is the ideal white for the cold antipasti, the floral nose leading in to a surprisingly dry and balanced chalkiness on the palate. The one red you shouldn't miss is served cold -- Frappato is a fun, traditional Sicilian wine, light enough to serve with fish dishes, but bold in ripe blueberry and cherry flavors.

The reincarnation of Dopo as a Sicilian restaurant is destined to become a Bay Area classic.

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Dopo
4293 Piedmont Ave.
Oakland, CA 94611 [Map]
(510) 652-3676
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-10pm; Friday, 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-11pm; Saturday, 5:30-11pm
Price Range: $$$ Entrees $31-$60
Instagram: https://instagram.com/palmento_a_dopo/

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