Few adults succeed in weaving their childhood passions into a career, but Paul Oprescu, chef and co-owner of Berkeley's Belli Osteria, is among them.
His winding path to a culinary career led him from a childhood in Romania to teen years in South California, followed by a diploma from Cal and graduate work at the University of Chicago.
After school, he dove into novel writing and teaching at a Montessori school in Berkeley. Now, he is following a dream and is knee-deep in his first restaurant with business partner Damien Morrison.
Belli Osteria's menu has been percolating in Oprescu's mind since his youth, when he spent weekends in the countryside hunting and watching his father make boar and venison sausage. A few years ago, he returned to his roots by making his own sausage and curing it in his Berkeley basement. Pasta making followed, prompting a culinary tour of Northern Italy last year to taste pasta in its original context.
Prime location, smart concept
These experiences culminated in the opening of Belli Osteria, with a plum location on Shattuck next to Comal. The long, narrow restaurant has a European feel with lots of wood surfaces, energized with vivid crimson walls. Tables are fashioned from reclaimed bleachers, while burlap on the walls keeps acoustics in check. The restaurant was hopping with folks of all ages when I visited, including a couple of families with children.
Oprescu intends for ravioli to be the main culinary attraction, but has rounded out the menu with other pastas and secondi. The menu changes frequently, with house-made sausage and potato ravioli arriving soon, as well as pan-seared duck breast.
On my visit, we were off to a welcoming start with the warm and salty olives ($4). Other antipasti choices include grilled hanger steak ($12), grilled tongue ($11), and a ham and cheese board with an aged Kentucky ham ($11).
For salads, a fresh and simple option is the mixed greens with large shreds of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a tangy key lime vinaigrette ($8). Brussels sprouts -- the vegetable du jour that has graced every menu from here to Belgium over the past year -- are served two ways in a fine salad ($10) with arugula, oyster mushrooms, walnuts and pickled shallots.
The bright spot of our meal was the ravioli with sweet potatoes and basil ($14), with their unexpectedly vibrant pink hue, colored by beets. The basil is mild and nicely complements the sweet potato.
The other two pastas we tried didn't come together so well. The gnocchi al pesto alla Genovese ($14) brought gummy dumplings overwhelmed by a heavy dousing of pesto. The ravioli with braised beef and fondo bruno (brown) sauce ($15) are adorably shaped like mini volcanoes, but we could not get past the saltiness of their beefy innards. I was later told we missed the most popular pasta, a black ravioli with prawns and spinach ($16).
Secondi options included pork belly ($18), grilled hanger steak ($21) and striped bass (the fish of the day, $20). The bass arrived a bit undercooked. The accompanying turnip cream, carrots and brussels sprouts brought color to the plate, but the Brussels sprouts were hard, even by the standards of Californians, who like their veggies crunchy.
For dessert, we opted for the molten chocolate cake ($7) with crème anglaise, which was small and suffered from a dry exterior. We also sampled the caro vincenzo ($6), which is something like a deconstructed cannoli. Burnt pastry dough kept this dessert from being a sweet finish. In the end, most of what we ordered needed better execution, though not a major overhaul.
Gaps in service were noticeable all night. The waitstaff was full of hustle and good intentions, but they seemed outnumbered. We were seated 20 minutes past our reservation time; menus were passed out 10 minutes after that. Our orders were finally taken 15 minutes later, but only after aggressively flagging down our server. Twice we found new courses arriving before dirty plates were cleared.
In the end, Belli Osteria has landed a prime address and a smart menu concept. But there appears to be significant kinks that need working out. Fingers crossed that they do.
Reach Chrissa Ventrelle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FOOD: * *
AMBIENCE: * * ½
SERVICE: * ½
WHERE: 2016 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
CONTACT: 510-704-1902, www.belliosteria.com
HOURS: Lunch served
11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays; dinner from 5:30 p.m. daily
CUISINE: Italian, with a focus on ravioli
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including gnocchi with pesto, ravioli stuffed with sweet potatoes and basil
BEVERAGES: Beer and wine
Recommended for dinner
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Street parking and pay lots nearby
KIDS: No separate
children's menu, but
PLUSES: Prime location in Berkeley's arts district; attractive design and menu concept
MINUSES: Spotty service
DATE OPENED: October
We don't let restaurants know that we are coming in to do a review, and we strive to remain anonymous. If we feel we have been recognized or are given special treatment, we will tell you. We pay for our meal, just as you would.
Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40