Old-world values cultivate exquisite dining at Oliveto

Made with care: Locally sourced whole grain flour provides the basis for Oliveto’s exemplary pasta dishes such as penne alla bolognese. (Brian Molyneaux/Special to The Examiner)Made with care: Locally sourced whole grain flour provides the basis for Oliveto’s exemplary pasta dishes such as penne alla bolognese. (Brian Molyneaux/Special to The Examiner)

Made with care: Locally sourced whole grain flour provides the basis for Oliveto’s exemplary pasta dishes such as penne alla bolognese. (Brian Molyneaux/Special to The Examiner)Made with care: Locally sourced whole grain flour provides the basis for Oliveto’s exemplary pasta dishes such as penne alla bolognese. (Brian Molyneaux/Special to The Examiner)

When Paul Bertolli left Chez Panisse to take over the kitchen at Oliveto in 1993, he turned it into one of the most wondrous and groundbreaking restaurants in the world. Every meal became a revelation about essence, about using old-world techniques to create food that rebooted culinary consciousness.

Over his 15 years at Oliveto, Bertolli built an aging room for the salume he made with wild boar he shot in the Sonoma hills. Every day he laboriously hand-ground dried organic corn for polenta and hard red wheat berries for pasta. He took everything back to basics to make food that tasted brand new.

Though Bertolli left to found the incomparable Fra ’Mani salume company five years ago, his legacy at Oliveto lives on, and co-owner Bob Klein remains dedicated to Bertolli’s vision.

One Monday night, the menu in the soigné upstairs dining room listed “pan-roasted saddle chop of sheep,” which I traveled across the Bay to try. I’ve had plenty of lamb, but the only discernible sheep came from the old Jack’s on Sacramento Street maybe 30 years ago, in the form of a mutton chop.

The tender sheep chop at Oliveto ($39, while available), cut in-house from a 2-year-old animal raised on Mendocino’s Magruder Ranch, had red, juicy flesh and vivacious if mild flavor delivering the carnal satisfaction of a juicy steak, without the fat. Morsels tucked into a thick, T-shaped bone were particularly succulent, whispering of pasture, and worth getting messy for.

This occasional whole animal service at Oliveto is possible because of Bertolli’s meat locker. Red meat improves with age and the ventilated meat room allows Oliveto’s new young chef, Jonah Rhodehamel, to buy whole, heritage breeds of sheep, lamb, pigs, goats and sides of beef in season.

Even if you’re not on the hunt for these special animals (sign up for the Oliveto newsletter to find out when they are coming in), Oliveto still uses whole grain flours that it has collaboratively developed with local farmers, and marketed under the Community Grains brand. (You can purchase them, and pasta made from them, on the Oliveto website.)

Red flint corn polenta, a grainy, toothsome, coarsely ground cornmeal is served by the bowl at the cafe downstairs ($4.50) and as part of a millefoglie of summer vegetables ($24) upstairs, with a breaded and deep-fried egg whose runny yolk becomes a sauce.

Whole grain penne made with Central Valley red winter wheat uncannily merges with a rich bolognese sauce ($16.50), the best whole wheat pasta I’ve reluctantly tried. At Oliveto, I would order it again.

If Oliveto’s housemade white pappardelle in smoky rabbit ragu ($16.50) happens to be on the menu, don’t pass it up. You don’t often encounter such bright lushness and integration in a pasta.

To start, look for shaved calf’s tongue ($12.50), topped with currants, fregola (little pearls of Sardinian couscous), olive salsa and arugula. Each exciting bite is perfectly balanced.

Eating upstairs at Oliveto is a luxurious and expensive experience, especially with top-flight Italian wines. But in the charming cafe downstairs, with a wood-burning oven and tall doors that open onto the sidewalk, you can taste much of Oliveto’s larder in casual dishes for much less.

Oliveto

Location: 5655 College Ave. (near BART station), Oakland
Contact: (510) 547-5356; www.oliveto.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday for lunch; 5:30 to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday and 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday for dinner
Price range: Antipasti $9 to $13; pasta $15.50 to $21.50 (for main course portion; main courses $25 to $39
Recommended dishes: Shaved calf’s tongue salad, marinated pole bean and shell bean salad, red winter wheat penne alla bolognese, lasagnette of chanterelles, pappardelle with rabbit, pan-roasted sheep chop, warm Italian prune tart
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Accepted

Patricia Unterman is the author of many editions of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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