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Tuscan Treasures 

Caffé Centro

Wednesday, Nov 15 2000
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Late in the 15th century a Florentine scholar by the name of Bartolomeo Sacchi gave the blossoming Renaissance a culinary conscience in the form of his wildly influential cookbook, Concerning Honest Pleasure and Well-Being. In it, Sacchi urged upon the citizenry a daily diet rich in greens and produce, the occasional foray into vegetarianism, the simple grilling of meats, the art of seasoning with wine or citrus instead of flavor-masking spices, the palate-cleansing properties of fresh fruit, and -- good classicist that he was -- Moderation in All Things. The occasional Medici-fueled mega-banquet notwithstanding, Sacchi's promulgations took root throughout greater Tuscany, which by that time was already the land of salubrious olive oils, excellent produce, and that well-known artery-cleanser, Chianti classico. Since then the Tuscans have been Italy's most elegantly uncomplicated diners: devotees of simply prepared, steadfastly uncorrupted dishes featuring the finest, freshest ingredients and the bare minimum of sauce and spice, fare so unpretentious it's inevitably au courant.

Indeed, Sacchi's dictums reverberate today like soundbites out of a California hot spot's press release. (His fellow Florentines even shunned the use of mass-produced pasta.) Is it any wonder that so many Tuscan restaurants have opened over the past decade, here in the land of compulsory body-worship, Alice Waters, and her let-the-veggies-speak-for-themselves ethos? Yeah, I'll have the spit-roasted chicken and the field greens, dressing on the side, says the prosperous mercante in the shades and the backward baseball cap sipping her pinot grigio at the next table. The old Florentine would feel right at home.

One of our liveliest new Tuscan eateries is Caffé Centro, which opened this past summer in downtown Berkeley. Its pedigree is impressive: The menu was designed by Jean-Pierre Moulle of (speak of the devil) Chez Panisse; the chef de cuisine is John Gorham, lately of LuLu and Citron; and the restaurant's proprietor is Ahmad Behjati, whose Santa Fe Bar & Grill is one of the East Bay's tastier venues. (In fact, the Santa Fe's extensive organic gardens provide Caffé Centro with greens, herbs, and other seasonal building blocks, a pronouncedly Tuscan arrangement.) The menu acknowledges -- embraces -- the prevalent season, serving up (as a recent example) squash soup with fried sage, grilled quail with figs, and other autumnal delicacies. It's doubly disappointing, then, that the stuff emerging from the kitchen is so erratic in quality.

The restaurant is located along a particularly congenial stretch of Center Street, one lively with cafes, theaters, and bustling foot traffic. The venue itself matches the neighborhood atmosphere: There's a happy, casual ambience at work amid the textured salmon walls, the eclectic array of light globes in oranges, reds, and yellows, the sweepingly vertical ceilings, the polished counter and its bowls of autumnal produce. Servers in basic black offer culinary insights and the occasional witticism. It's a pleasant place to duck out of the crisp, leaf-turning air for a warm nibble and a glass of moscato.

Unfortunately, many of the dishes had a schizoid quality about them in which sparkle and tedium shared the same attractive platter. Too many of the obviously top-drawer ingredients tasted like they were either left on the stovetop longer than was advisable or were overdressed with an otherwise delicious sauce. The vegetable salad, for instance, featured a sparkling array of fresh seasonal produce marinated within an inch of their lives in an eyeball-popping vinaigrette (accent on the vinegar) and then placed upon an incongruous bed of crisp romaine lettuce leaves. Another starter, the baked oysters, stumbled: Sweet, succulent Fanny Bays were blanketed with a crunchy, ponderous topping (advertised as "roasted red pepper butter") and baked (and baked and baked), emerging as dry, starchy ovals of protoplasm with just a hint of their former glory. The grilled quail, meanwhile, was absolutely succulent, smoky, and dripping with flavor, its delicate sensibilities beautifully accentuated with supple fig meat and the heady aroma of roasted onion. But couldn't those baby greens have been a bit less, um, perfunctory?

The brodetto (seafood stew) sparkled with a broth incomparable in my experience: Briny with the drippings of clam, mussel, scallop, and swordfish, it further delighted tongue and belly with an enchanted amalgam of peppers and spices and those Sacchi-approved addendums, citrus and wine. But once again the star -- the seafood -- was dry and overcooked. Everything about the pork chop was terrific -- the sweet, succulent roasted onions and the gratin of earthly potatoes, bracing celery root, and a gallon or two of heavy cream -- except the pork chop itself, which wasn't bad (there was a nice hint of balsamic vinegar discernible now and then), but wasn't particularly memorable, either.

The gnocchi, however, was a gustatory dream. Caffé Centro's version was alla Romana, which means it forsakes the boiled or fried potato, spinach, or farina pellets of other regions for the large, baked semolina cakes of the Eternal City. The semolina gave Centro's gnocchi rendition a marvelously rich, hush puppy, polenta-esque aspect; the baking (modern-day Romans advise serving it while the dish is still "alive," burbling and erupting from the oven's heat) provided an irresistibly crunchy top crust that encompassed the silky/ creamy delights beneath. Result: comfort food exponentialized.

The desserts were every bit as good as the gnocchi, the quail, and the celery-root gratin. The panna cotta was an ethereal cumulonimbus of creamy, cool texture touched in rich caramel and grilled fig. The crumbly exterior of the Boca Negra ("black mouth") cake gave way to an inner core of damp earth texture and an intensely bittersweet-chocolate opulence; the whole thing was topped off with a dense, butterlike slab of mascarpone and set in a pool of orange-rum syrup that was initially vapid, then entrancing, and finally irresistible. The warm apple galette was everything you want on a nippy evening (well, culinarily): The apples were softly textured but with a crisp bite to them, and the bottom and enclosing pastry, though unimpressive at first sight, was as crumbly and buttery as a good South Carolina pie crust. A drizzle of golden marsala honey and a melting scoop of gelatolike custard ice cream were worthy co-conspirators.

Caffé Centro's wine list is brief yet interesting, with most of the selections originating from the fertile boot (Tuscany, predominantly) and the balance out of Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino. In addition to the fully bottled pinot grigios, sangioveses, and Chianti classicos available, there are six wines by the half-bottle, seven wines by the glass (the Brusco dei Barbi was particularly autumn-friendly), four aperitifs, and five dessert wines (including Arrowood's memorable late-harvest white Riesling). The final liquid offerings: Pellegrino's Limonata, D'arbo's natural fruit sodas, and three beers on tap, including Red Nectar Ale from Humboldt County. As Caffé Centro inadvertently demonstrates, all good stuff isn't necessarily from Tuscany.

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Matthew Stafford

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