Dinning at Oliveto was not only a total pleasure it was a real surprise. The part of Oakland that I had explored the day before was a world away from the refined upscale strip that you exit at the Rockridge station on the Bart, this part of Oakland looks more like Berkeley, fully gentrified, quiet and very comfortable. Not a place in transition, but rather a place that had arrived and settled in.
The overwhelming feeling I am left with from my visit to Oliveto is how friendly a place it is. Split into two sections, a casual downstairs cafe and a more formal upstairs dinning room. I ate upstairs, an although they host dinners for some heavy hitters, one of te staff told me that Pixar had just had a big event there a few weeks back. A table of 4 Gentlemen in suits where there the night I went, all in there early 60’s, taking turns leaving the table to have important conversations on their smart phones. The big topic of conversation I could over hear them having this particular night was about John Travolta:
“yeah, he would go to a masseuse, er, masseur and ask them for….”
“so he’s gay?”
“He’d ask them to do extra things…”
“so one of these gay masseurs’ went to the media...”
“so he’s gay?”
It seemed to go on like that for a while, luckily I had attentive staff and a fascinating menu to distract me.
To drink I had a glass of Loire red ($12 a glass) when the sommelier brought the wine he brought with it a half of a glass of a Sardinian wine he wanted me to taste. How amazing is that? He was also very charming, handsome and most importantly well-informed and enthusiastic about wine. My waitress was the equivalent in a food server.
After my hand wringing I decided to have three small plates starting off with a Duck Egg, poached then bread and deep-fried, served on a lemon sabayon with fried artichoke. Amazing. The duck egg was runny inside and crispy fried on the outside, the thick, lemon sabayon studded with chives giving the perfect contrast to the fried, crunchy, crust of the egg and helped bring together the flavor of the artichoke to make for a perfectly balanced dish. Again one is reminded why food is so great in the Bay Area, artichokes this delicious need to be grown near by.
Watermelon salad has become ubiquitous on New York City restaurant menus, usually served with a cheese (Feta) and mint. It was great when first introduced, but is now so copied and familiar as to be kind of lame. Not so at Oliveto. The chunks of Watermelon are marinated in an aggressive hot pepper marinade (I believe the waitress said it was an Sicilian pepper? But don’t quote me on that). The result was more Thai than Italian. The hot sweet crunch of the Watermelon chunks was bracing and the accompanying arugula that the dish was topped with added the right vegetal note to make it worthy of being called a salad.
After these two dishes I found my spaghetti with fried anchovy a little less spectacular. Perfectly prepared with wonderfully fishy fried pieces of anchovy crowning the pasta I felt the spaghetti needed a more aggressive sauce. Still, with a little salt and pepper I gobbled it down without any problem. The level of skill in this kitchen is very high and their willingness to take on food politics both on their website and their menu is to be applauded.
As an example of their commitment to sustainability and excellent sourcing of their produce/meat/fish they were having: “a series of conversations about eating, cooking, an the politics of food, aimed at going beyond the quick-take, 140 character understanding of complex food-system issues.” It’s called: It’s Complicated. The first event was called: Our Local Seas: A Comeback Story.
What can I tell you? I think I’m in love. When I decided not to have dessert, the sommelier came over to chat with another, he felt better, Loire red to share, after much chatting the waitress brought me another full glass of the wine I had been drinking. I was charged for none of them. This level of intelligence, service and food is a rare thing to find, and although I had been told about the food scene in Oakland I wasn’t expecting to find something at this level of accomplishment.
If you are in the Bay Area take my advice, put aside an evening and go to Oliveto. Trust me on this one you won’t be sorry you did. Oh my bill for such a wonderful night excluding wine and tip? $44.59