Spring is a lovely time for diners. Bright seasonal ingredients start hitting kitchens, yet the weather remains cold enough, you often yearn for hearty and comforting food. And what better cuisine highlights this dichotomy than Italian?
Today we highlight four spots that made our 50 Best Restaurants list, including one that ranked No. 4 (Belotti) and another that’s technically “Californian” (Camper) but has become well-known for its inventive fresh pastas. (For our other grouped rankings, check out great Chinese and Taiwanese, next-level Middle Eastern and Mediterranean and destination-worthy Mexican.)
Belotti Ristorante, Oakland
Take that first bite of Michele (mee-ke-le) Belotti’s food, and you can almost hear the dramatic symphonic music that opens Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” where the Italian chef flicks flour on the cutting board. Belotti, who grew up near Milan, could join their ranks. His eponymous Rockridge restaurant, conceived and run with his wife, Joyce, strips gourmet Italian food to its essence: simple, minimal ingredients combined in ways that print memories on the palate. The handmade pastas are headline-worthy: casoncelli stuffed with beef and pork shoulder, bigoli tangled in duck sugo and orange zest, tagliatelle topped with grappa-marinated wild boar and Tuscan pecorino.
Belotti Ristorante is that rare neighborhood bistro that hits every mark. It offers a reasonable price point, exceptional wine list, long and convenient hours and confident servers who make spot-on recommendations, as they breeze by with samples of world-class Brunello. Even the simplest of desserts, a traditional panna cotta, is not the typical jiggly mold but a pot of silky, raspberry-topped cream custard that cues the music again.
Don’t miss: The Casoncelli Bergamaschi (Bergamo-style stuffed pasta with beef, pork shoulder, prosciutto, Grana Padano, sage, butter and smoked pancetta) is a crowd-pleaser. Also wonderful: the tortellini tradizionali in brodo (tiny tortellini in short rib-chicken-oxtail bone broth) and Agnolotti di Lidia (stuffed pasta with beef shank, flat iron, pork loin, sausage, escarole and spinach).
Details: 5403 College Ave., Oakland, with a take-out and pasta shop at 4001B Piedmont Ave., also in Oakland; belottirb.com
Donato Enoteca, Redwood City
Marvelous, red-checkered-tablecloth meals abound in the Bay Area, which is home to scores of Italian-American restaurants. There are times, though, when a tour of Italy is in order. That’s where Donato Scotti comes in. The chef-restaurateur’s ethos and menus have been rooted in regional Italian cuisine since he opened his eponymous places in Redwood City and Berkeley, long before Eataly brought its regional emporium to Silicon Valley.
On the antipasti menu, burrata Pugliese from the south of Italy is the perfect foil for marinated broccoli rabe and cherry-tomato confit. A grilled salad of calamari e fagioli showcases both Monterey Bay squid and imported Italian butter beans, Bianchi di Spagna. From Scotti’s home near Lake Como comes the recipe for the traditional Bergamo ravioli of wild greens and Taleggio Vero, the pasta shaped like a scarpinocc (or shoe) and cooked to al dente perfection, then dressed lightly in a brown butter sauce and crowned with crispy sunchokes. And the wood-fired oven turns out pizzas with toppings such as housemade nduja sausage, a spicy specialty of Calabria; pesto, the pride of Genoa; and often Mission figs grown here in California.
For dessert, how about a traditional tart from the heel of Italy’s boot? The bocconotto pugliese is filled with pastry cream and luscious imported Amarena cherries.
Don’t miss: The kitchen works wonders with seasonal ingredients. But November brings the most prized of truffles, the white ones, from northern Italy to the menu. Look for large raviolo with egg yolk and white truffle, risotto with white truffle and other specials.
Details: 1041 Middlefield Road, Redwood City, with Scotti’s wine bar, bistro and shop, called Cru, located nearby; donatoenoteca.com
Slice House by Tony Gemignani, Walnut Creek
Walnut Creek’s worst-kept secret is a 900-square-foot, counter-service pizza place on the heaviest traffic corner of town. The magnificently hand-crafted pies – a library of styles, from New York and Sicilian to Detroit and Neapolitan – are the work of Fremont-raised Tony Gemignani, a 13-time World Pizza Champion who’s been spinning dough in the Bay Area since he was 17. Gemignani has received many accolades over the years, but last year reached a pinnacle: He was named pizza maker of the year, and his San Francisco pizzeria, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, No. 10 in the world by a panel of Naples-based experts. Stateside, Gemignani made the cover of Pizza Today magazine, an honor he calls bigger than a James Beard Award.
The tiny Walnut Creek pizzeria – the first to bring multiple pie styles to the East Bay when it opened in 2016 – is particularly important to Gemignani. Not only is it the busiest Slice House outside of San Francisco, but with the mini empire moving toward a franchise model, it is the only one Gemignani and his partners own. “It’s in my backyard,” Gemignani says. “And the young staff reminds me of my first jobs.”
Those staff members, who whip up pizzas by the slice as well as whole pies, are champs in their own right. Pizzaiolos work practically back-to-back with cashiers in a cramped space, where the vibe is somehow always chill, even on weekends. In addition to two dozen pizzas available in multiple styles, Slice House offers an array of salads, subs, meatballs ($1 on Mondays) and pastas.
Don’t miss: There are no bad choices here, only delicious ones, especially if you order the Wise Guy, Purple Potato, Pigman, Tomato Pie or Gemignani’s gold-medal winning Cal Italia, made with gorgonzola, prosciutto and figs.
Details: 1500 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek. Also at 135 Parrott St. in San Leandro and 1000C El Camino Real in Belmont; slicehouse.com
Camper, Menlo Park
If you haven’t dined with Greg Kuzia-Carmel lately, what are you waiting for? The chef-partner of creative, farm-to-table Californian restaurant Camper is a veteran of San Francisco’s Quince and Cotogna who wants to put his stamp on the Peninsula dining scene.
Grab a table inside or outdoors on Menlo Park’s Santa Cruz Avenue and nibble on the warm cast-iron buttermilk cornbread with sweetly assertive green chile-honey butter and Di Stefano burrata with baby beets and smoked saba while you delve into the menu options.
A buckwheat strozzapreti is tossed with braised lamb sugo, garbanzo gremolata, Castelvetrano olives and Garrotxa, an earthy Catalan goat cheese. The housemade pastas always impress with their creativity: A crispy chickpea panisse – kind of like lightly fried strips of polenta – comes with walnut romesco, delicata squash, black garbanzo and cilantro zhoug. Also on the menu at the moment is an intriguing charcoal-stained spaghetti with Dungeness crab “Fra diavolo” and parsley butter.
This year Kuzia-Carmel opened a second concept nearby, by the way. Canteen is an all-day wine bar featuring a seasonal menu of small plates like marinated white anchovies, Tuscan kale barbajuans (fritters) and garlicky tomato-pulp toast with aioli.
Don’t miss: Saturday’s brunch menu is an intriguing, ever-changing one. You might find French toast with roasted cinnamon apples and cultured butter. Or a French-style rolled omelet with Dungeness crab and tarragon.
Details: 898 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park; campermp.com
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