Occupation: Cooking Teacher and Author
Favorite Restaurant: Bellanico Restaurant and Wine Bar
Reviewed Bellanico Restaurant and Wine Bar: Saturday, February 25, 2012
I love Bellanico! As regular customers since the place opened almost three years ago, my husband and I have never been disappointed with a meal at Bellanico. We’ve introduced at least 35 friends to our neighborhood favorite and everyone comes away with the same feeling: This is some of the Bay Area’s most reasonably priced, well prepared, rustic Italian food to be found in a casual setting. And all of this comes with a big dividend: You don’t have to strain to hear the conversation at your table.
Located in a small commercial zone in Oakland’s residential Glenview district, Bellanico is a big hit with the locals. The husband and wife team of Chris Shepherd and Elizabeth Frumusa are hands-on owners who divide their time between Bellanico and their other more established gem, Aperto, in San Francisco. Bellanico is named after their two children, Gabriella and Nicoletta.
The vibe is relaxed, yet attentive, and service strikes the perfect balance of professional and friendly. All the staff seem genuinely pleased to serve you. The dining room is small enough that your waiter is never out of view, and Chris or Elizabeth is often there to keep things running smoothly in the dining room.
Chef Jonathan Luce deserves high praise for creating and consistently delivering a compelling rustic California-Italian menu that changes frequently. Fortunately, there are several iconic Bellanico dishes that stay on the menu year-round including my favorite, Malfatti. These tender orbs of Swiss chard and ricotta, like gnudi on steroids, are gently poached and topped with sage brown butter and freshly grated Grana Padano. As with several of the other house-made pastas, you can order Malfatti in either a small or larger portion. Casunzei is another of my favorite Bellanico pastas. These beet-and-ricotta-filled ravioli are topped with poppy seeds and butter sauce. If I knew I could eat one of these two pasta dishes everyday, I’d swear off meat and commit to vegetarianism.
There’s something for everyone at Bellanico. What sets this place apart from other Bay Area rustic Italian restaurants is the uniqueness of its menu. While Bellanico regularly offers a version of Pasta Bolognese, the pasta shape varies, as does the ragu—sometimes it’s made with beef and other times with lamb or pork. Also, as with the pastas mentioned earlier, it’s not uncommon to find something on Bellanico’s menu that I’ve not seen on a menu outside of Italy.
I particularly enjoy their fish dishes and I appreciate their gentle touch with yellowtail. (When you order this, the waiter mentions that the chef likes to cook it rare and asks if that would be okay. They deliver on their promise of rare fish, revealing its impeccable freshness.) The trout here is the best I’ve ever had in a restaurant, and I love the way the chef pairs it with the classic Sardinian combination of fregola and clams, along with the distinctive addition of braised Brussels sprouts and radishes.
Bellanico is also open for weekday lunch and weekend brunch. The duck confit hash with poached eggs, fingerling potatoes, and buttered Italian toast is my brunch favorite. At lunch or brunch, as at dinner, you’ll find a great dessert menu, featuring the not-to-be-missed Laura Chenel Goat Cheese Cheesecake, an ethereal square covered on all surfaces with shards of pistachio brittle. The honey-pine nut tart is exceptional, too—not too sweet, with a perfectly baked crust.
It’s not unusual to see families celebrating special occasions at Bellanico, and the menu offers a nod to younger diners with a dish called Bambino, organic pasta for kids with tomato, butter or cream sauce for $5.
But make no mistake: This is an adult restaurant with a well-curated, reasonably priced wine list. I love their Wine Flights menu featuring three clearly labeled 3-ounce pours brought to the table at the same time, always at a reasonable price. My current favorite is the Progressive flight, which features a red and two whites, Lambrusco, Lugana and Grechetto, for $13.50.
Bellanico offers a four-course, fixed price menu for the bargain price of $30 at dinner or $20 at lunch. These tasting menus change every week or so. Optional wine pairings by the glass are suggested for each item on the fixed price menus, as well as on the a la carte menus.
Weather permitting, there are several tables on the sidewalk in front, with a heated enclosure and blankets available, should the weather dictate. In conjunction with three other restaurants in the same Glenview block, Bellanico offers valet parking on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Otherwise, street parking isn’t too difficult. Reservations can be made online or by phone for brunch, lunch, and dinner.
Even after nearly three years as a steady customer, I keep discovering new reasons to call Bellanico my favorite restaurant. Don’t miss this neighborhood gem—it’s well worth a trip across any Bay Area bridge.
Occupation: Renewable Energy Forecaster
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Davey Jones Deli
Reviewed Bellanico Restaurant and Wine Bar: Sunday, February 26, 2012
There is a lot to like about Bellanico Restaurant. For starters, when you actually commit to leaving San Francisco, Oakland is not as far as it seems. Once you arrive, the restaurant is inviting and relaxing. The service was excellent, finding that ideal space between being attentive without feeling intrusive.
Another big selling point is the prix fixe menu, which changes weekly. I thought this was a great idea and wished that more restaurants followed suit. Especially, the dinner tasting menu consisting of 4 courses for $30: an amazing value! Add that to the fact that the “tasting” menu courses were either full-sized or could easily pass as full-sized, still you are sitting in front of a lot of food at a very reasonable price.
Additionally, the wine list was extensive, easy to navigate, and featured sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines primarily from California and Italy.
My favorite dishes of the evening included the small hand-pulled burrata for appetizers, and the roasted duck for my entrée. The burrata was incredibly fresh and the candied walnuts and oil-cured olives nicely complemented the cheese. The duck was served two ways; with a leg confit and a roasted breast. The sliced breast was cooked perfectly and had a wonderful flavor. The leg had an amazing golden crust and a wonderful texture. Although I found the leg confit to be too salty, overall the dish had a lot of flavor and really did work.
Unfortunately, I found the rest of the meal frustrating because I really wanted to like everything, and for the most part everything was good, but nothing really stood out. It seemed like all of the ideas and ingredients and presentation was there, but for whatever reason the flavors seemed slightly muted. Maybe I was asking for too much, or maybe it was just an off night, but Bellanico didn’t meet my expectations. Yet, in its own way, Bellanico still offers great value and some nice red wines.
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Gamine
Reviewed Bellanico Restaurant and Wine Bar: Saturday, March 25, 2012
I was really excited to venture out of my San Francisco comfort zone to try a new spot in the East Bay. I have never been to this part of Oakland and, while small, I found it to be quite charming with several appealing restaurants. I was even more thrilled to see a four-course, prix fixe menu with optional wine pairings (I don’t really understand the “optional” part; to me wine pairings are mandatory). My companion chose to order the same number of items, but off the general menu (also with wine). I realized this could become fairly complicated for the server to manage, and I was right. While I felt we were incredibly patient and forgiving, the clumsy service did overshadow the good food and lively ambiance. In all, I didn’t feel I got a “wine pairing” experience, while one of my guest’s dishes never appeared.
The interior is fun and lively with an appealing wine bar for a pre- or post-meal beverage. I immediately noticed that my friend and I were the only representatives from the 25-39 age group. Everyone was my parents’ age or in high school. That was my first hint we had left San Francisco.
I struggled to understand the options on the tasting menu (one needs to be fluent in Italian to understand it, as there are no translations) and had to ask our server go through each option with me. Authentic: yes; practical: no. Once I understood my options (there are four courses, two choices for each). I also added the suggested wine pairing with each course. At $30 for four courses (plus about $15 for wine), this is an excellent value.
My first course – the arancini - came out. They looked like two large tater tots; crispy -- deep fried, breaded goodness. However, my wine pairing was nowhere in sight (neither was my guest’s first course). After a few torturous minutes of waiting, I dug in sans wine. The arancini was filled with a cheesy rice concoction. It was hot, salty, and cheesy. A great start to the meal! The white wine finally came after I was done with the two “tots.” Each one was several bites, so I was pleased with the portion size.
My second glass of wine came out as I was still eating the first course. The pasta accompaniment (best described as three large beef raviolis) arrived about ten minutes after the wine (yet, my friend still hadn’t seen any food and was understandably becoming pretty antsy). The pasta is clearly hand-made; one can taste the level of quality immediately. The beef interior was well-flavored and had a nice sausage texture, but I also felt the dish was lukewarm. The beef interior felt a little cold, as did the juice. This meant it didn’t quite have that comforting effect that a truly excellent ravioli dish can have. I would give it a B. My friend finally asked for her first course and a nice spread of burrata cheese came out. In the bite I had, it was chewy and mild like a good burrata should be.
The third course – a pork chop – followed the theme of the preceding courses: above average food quality but frustrating delivery. The pork chop itself was juicier than most I’ve had; there’s nothing worse than a tough chop and fortunately this one didn’t fall victim to that trap. Unfortunately, the wine was not delivered in the same ten-minute window of the meat. At one point during the meal, I had three wine glasses in front of me that had accumulated from the preceding courses. I got the feeling the kitchen staff was just delivering each dish and glass as soon as it was ready (and forgot to clear things). It left a sloppy impression for me and ruined the concept of a wine pairing.
While I chose the bittersweet chocolate panna cotta off the tasting menu, it is my guest’s dougnut holes (“bomboloni”) that I will remember. Six large, dense holes came out. They were much heavier than a dougnut. My friend and I both said we’d each have one and take the rest home. Fast-forward two minutes: GONE. We had good intentions, though!
Unfortunately, I will remember the service more than the food. The server completely forgot the risotto dish my companion ordered (he did comp her dessert, which was a much appreciated gesture). Furthermore, to me, the joy of a wine pairing is to learn more about the restaurant’s choices behind the pairings. There was no sort of explanation or education around why they chose a certain whine with a certain dish. This is a disappointment when you visit a self-proclaimed “wine bar.” Considering the travel time (45 minutes) and parking (difficult), and the plethora of terrific Italian restaurants in the Bay Area, I don’t foresee a return visit anytime very soon.