Hot and steamy is my lingering impression of Borgo Italia, a new restaurant that specializes in home cooking from Liguria, Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. And it's not because the Oakland restaurant is run by three hunky Italians. It's because of a singular antipasti, Torta Fritta Emiliana ($12).
On a recent Saturday night, the warm, fried, salted dough was the first dish to arrive on our table. I peeled one of the puffy, beignet-like balls open and breathed in its yeasty heat before stuffing it with the best salumi money can buy. I pressed the bread together, allowing the steam to "cook" the prosciutto: Precious piggies wrapped in hotel-grade, pillow-soft down comforters. Yum.
Dishes like this, and a silky, ribboned tagliatelle served straight from the saute pan, offer a glimpse into the kind of refined comfort food Borgo Italia owners Fabio Dalle Vacche, Franco Camboli and Paul Ferrari (of A.G. Ferrari) were lucky enough to grow up with.
They opened the restaurant two months ago in the historic building that used to house B Restaurant in Old Oakland as an homage to their grandmothers' cucina casalinga, or home cooking, and the villages they served (Borgo means village). With its wood-fired pizzas, handmade pastas, and focused wine program, the restaurant brings regional, ingredient-focused Italian fare to downtown Oakland.
Camboli, a top pastry chef from Tuscany, cooks in the kitchen while Vacche, a consultant who grew up in his mother's restaurant in Borgotaro, near Parma, minds the front of the house. Camboli is also an Advanced Level III sommelier (I know, who IS this guy?) and no doubt works his contacts in Italy to source some of those coveted, small-production gems on the wine list. Gorgeous, by-the-glass gems, like the 2010 Poderi San Lorenzo "Polesio" Sangiovese from Marche ($9), are food-friendly and fairly priced.
On our visit, the vibe was mellow and moody. Down-tempo beats filled the dining room up to the high ceilings and brick-lined perimeter. Vintage accents, like imported antique furniture and refined copper lighting, provided just the right touch.
So did our waiter, a confident, familiar gentleman who brought us complimentary wine when our entrees were delayed and provided an answer every time we asked him for a suggestion. I love that. There's nothing more off-putting than a waiter without opinions.
He steered us to the heavenly fried dough and that Tagliatelle al Ragu ($15), fresh egg pasta tossed in a rich, savory tomato sauce spiked with tender bits of ground beef and veal, which was gorgeous.
Any restaurant that respects and elevates the vegetable side dish gets extra points from me, and Borgo Italia's contorni menu was brimming with seasonal options. Both the Funghi al Forno ($8), a generous heap of sauteed mushrooms, and Melazane a Funghetto ($8), bites of sauteed eggplant, were tasty though heavily salted for our palates.
Vellutata di Porri e Patat ($8), a potato leek soup, was more balanced in flavor. Camboli uses high quality, extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter or cream to attain that velvety smooth texture. If you're lactose-intolerant, you will be thrilled.
For us, the least thrilling dish was probably Scallopine Vitelo ($17), the veal scaloppine entree that was running a tad late. It was tasty and well-prepared but small in portion and a bit tepid upon arrival. It was served alongside the sauteed eggplant and roasted potatoes, which were also too salty for me to finish.
What we did finish was the Tiramisu ($8). Borgo Italia's is gluten-free, made fresh daily, and available for take-out in a glass jar. Camboli, a celiac, crafts his lady fingers from a mixture of rice and corn flours, which soaked up the espresso and mascarpone like a charm. The restaurant was out of pizza boxes or we would've ordered a margherita pie for breakfast.
Speaking of breakfast, how good would the fried dough taste with butter and jam. ...
* * *
FOOD: * * *
AMBIENCE: * * * ½
SERVICE: * * *
WHERE: 499 Ninth St., Oakland
HOURS: 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
VEGETARIAN: Several options on our visit, including potato leek soup, margherita pizze, homemade egg pasta, sauteed eggplants, and sauteed mushrooms.
BEVERAGES: Advanced certified sommelier Franco Camboli's focused wine list of Italian gems under $100 gets our admiration.
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: We used the $5 parking lot behind the restaurant.
KIDS: Ours loved leftovers of homemade egg pasta with ragu. He would've gobbled up all three wood-fired pizzes on the menu as well.
PLUSES: Fresh, unfussy cucina casalinga, or home cooking.
MINUSES: Some of the dishes were too salted for our palates.
DATE OPENED: Sept. 18
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