For years Christopher Lee worked in the great training kitchen, Chez Panisse. Yet the food at his own three-year-old restaurant Eccolo, a bustling California-style bistro/trattoria in Berkeley’s upscale Fourth Street shopping complex, is distinctly his own.
Though he shares principles with the mothership — the worship of local, seasonal and artisanal ingredients — his dishes are richer, meatier and heartier. After a meal at Eccolo, you know you have eaten. Plus, Eccolo has a bar, a real bar that serves martinis and cocktails.
Now, in winter, Eccolo’s clubby, dark wood-trimmed dining room feels especially warm and inviting. Diners start with delectably salty, roasted almonds ($5) scented with herbs and whole red chiles — and maybe a huge, well-made Negroni ($10), that suave continental concoction of gin, Campariand sweet vermouth.
Next they might opt for Lee’s unctuous house-cured salumi, moist, fragrant and sliced tissue thin to release flavor when they hit your tongue. The slices are laid out on a board with hunks of artisan cheeses ($24). Lee knows how to pick them. Magically crusty and airy Della Fattoria wood-oven baked bread accompanies.
A small box on the menu lists nightly specials and always includes something expertly deep fried. Carciofi giudea ($10), big hunks of artichoke heart with stem and tender leaves, is a must-order dish. Another night, we devoured deep-fried oysters in a crunchy batter, with tartar sauce and arugula salad on the side ($10).
Tuscan-style chicken liver toasts ($10) are always a good bet, the hand-chopped liver full of savory aromatics, the toasts thin; an arugula and endive salad a refreshing counterpoint.
A marinated winter vegetable salad ($9) of tiny florettes of cauliflower opulently drizzled in piquant salsa verde was corralled by a translucent pink slice of smoked prosciutto.
Each night brings three handmade pastas, my favorite part of the menu. Recently an extravagant portion of chunky chanterelles, sauteed in plenty of good olive oil were intertwined with wide, soft tagliatelle topped with a handful of toasted bread crumbs for crunch ($20).
You will usually find Lee’s long-cooked, hyper-meaty Neapolitan pork sugo ($18) on some shape of pasta — little ears, squares or strands. Butternut squash lasagna ($20) is lubriciously moistened with sage and brown butter.
(Photo by Mike Koozmin/Special to The Examiner)
The menu at Eccolo, run by former Chez Panisse chef Christopher Lee, top right, roasts excellent chicken liver, second from top, deep-fried artichokes, second from bottom and butternut squash lasagna, bottom.
A chef with an aptitude for both cured and fresh sausages, Lee makes elegant, very French boudin blanc, gentle in flavor and finely textured, a mix of pork and chicken. They are juicy, white and delicate. He serves them with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut ($21); or stuffed into cabbage leaves with chanterelles ($22).
A flavorful braised duck leg ($21) is always a good bet here, with pot juices moistening thick parsley-flecked noodles. Hamburgers ($16) and a gigantic veal chop ($35) come from the grill.
For dessert, I find it difficult to get past the Eccolo hot-fudge sundae ($8.50), though gingery pear gelato ($8.50) has its charms.
A mostly Italian wine list detours to Alsace, the Rhone and Chiles Valley, California, among other scattered locations, with lots of choice for wine by the glass.
Lee has mounted an urbane, exciting, yet hard-working restaurant. He’s crafted lunch and brunch for shoppers and workers in the Berkeley flatlands, and dinner for pure pleasure. The menu expands with voluptuous choices and the food lovers drift in, hankering for Lee’s signature — deep flavor.
» Location: 1820 Fourth St., Berkeley
» Contact: (510) 644-0444; www.eccolo.com
» Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday for lunch; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday for brunch; 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday for dinner
» Price range: Starters $8 to $14; main courses $16 to $35
» Recommended dishes: Chicken liver toasts, house-cured salumi, anything deep fried, handmade pastas, boudin blanc, braised duck leg
» Credit cards: All major
» Reservations: Accepted
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.