By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
The food-movie matchup worked much better the next day, when I wandered in a daze from the exquisitely lit, painterly Girl With a Pearl Earring (at the Mill Valley festival Oct. 4 and 9), which begins with a montage of the careful slicing of jewel-toned beets and carrots, to the nearby Ti Couz (3108 16th St., 25-CREPE), where the rough wooden tables and simple crepes and bols of cidre seemed like a continuation of the 17th century, despite the shift from Delft to Brittany.
And it reached its apogee the following night, when my goddaughter Anna invited me and a clutch of her college pals to a screening of Under the Tuscan Sun, which owes only a shred of inspiration to its source material (a book by another local-girl-makes-good, S.F. State professor Frances Mayes), but is sheer porn for the Italophile [see Page 45 for a review]. We were inflamed by the many shots of food (when the character of Frances was given a statue of St. Lorenzo and told it was the patron saint of chefs, Anna leaned over and whispered, "This is a good movie for you!"), especially a montage of Frances providing endless feasts of antipasti, pasta, roasts, and tarts for the Polish workers remodeling her Tuscan villa. You could almost smell the garlic.
So it was no wonder that we raced over, afterward, to a new Italian ristorante in Berkeley, where our friend Robert had been instructed to order some antipasti for us in case we were late. He had chosen carciofi ripieni, a stuffed artichoke; melanzane fritti, fried eggplant; and funghi trifolati, sautéed mushrooms -- all favorites from earlier visits of his. I added the classic caprese salad (mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes) and a platter of grilled vegetables, hoping to re-create the abbondanza feeling of the movie's dining. (I was sad that the carciofini all'ebraica, the classic tiny fried artichokes as served in the Jewish quarter of Rome, were not available, but Robert said that, although tasty, the version he'd had here was sautéed rather than classically deep-fried.)
2132 Center St.
Berkeley, CA 94704-1304
Region: Downtown Berkeley
Melanzane fritti $6.75
Gnocchi aurora $13.50
Ravioli al funghi $13.50
Rombo con beschamella $16.75
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.
Noise level: moderate
The star of the starters was the mushroom dish, sensuous slippery slices bathed in a lovely broth of white wine, garlic, and parsley, and crowned with two crisp slices of garlic toast. Everyone said he would order it again. And I liked the simple fried eggplant, the smoky, lightly oiled vegetables, the mildly lemony filling of the artichoke.
I especially liked watching four slender college girls tear into their food as though they hadn't eaten for days. (Robert's wife Gail and I eyed them with nostalgia.)
But where the place really shone was with our main courses. Excellent pastas, including tender ricotta and spinach ravioli drenched in a sauce much like the acclaimed mushroom trifolati; airy gnocchi that deserved their menu description of "potato pillows" in a blushing aurora (tomato-and-cream) sauce; and a tasty special called conchiglione, big shell pasta stuffed with ricotta, zucchini, garlic, and mint, topped with mozzarella and served with marinara. I was disappointed only by the penne that the restaurant called "arrabiato," finding its sauce insufficiently spicy. Even better, I thought, were the fish dishes we had: a light brodetto featuring chunks of halibut and snapper in a white wine broth; a slab of grilled salmon set in a luscious sauce of mascarpone, basil, and garlic ("In case pesto isn't sufficiently caloric," Gail said); and the best, an ethereal dish of poached halibut glazed with béchamel called rombo con beschamella that I wish were on the regular menu.
The dessert list looked exciting, but the proof was not in the pudding: I found the panna cotta overgelatined, the zabaglione soupy, the un-hotted-up apple bread pudding too dense (though I loved its boozy sauce).
Alert Italophiles might notice that we had no prosciutto, bistecca alla fiorentina, or even shellfish in the brodetto. This is because Raphaël is a kosher restaurant, which is discreetly mentioned on its menus. (Even the wine is kosher.) "I think it's genius," Robert said, "because their clientele, as well as those who keep kosher, includes vegetarians -- even vegans -- fishatarians, and people who just like good Italian food." And this milchedig (no meat) restaurant works much better than the one flayshedig (no dairy) kosher Italian restaurant of my experience -- because who can conceive of an Italian restaurant without cheese?