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Hungry for More 

Two new East Bay restaurants have foodies talking with their mouths full

Wednesday, Aug 3 2005
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This is what it takes to get me excited about a restaurant: eating something that makes me want to eat it again. I recently had the dizzying and fairly uncommon experience of dining at two new restaurants where I would happily order almost everything I had again -- and when that happens, I know that I'd like the other dishes on the menu, too -- even if I'm drawn to repeat the familiar ones. (Echoing the problem I have with travel, when I'm torn between returning to places I love and trying a new destination.)

As it happens, both restaurants are in the East Bay, one in Oakland, the other in Berkeley, and both names, I find, are on the tips of the tongues of foodies: Lots of people on both sides of the bay have asked me about Pizzaiolo (and, if they've eaten there, the question is accompanied by a rushed recital of what they had), whereas those who mention Sea Salt are mostly East Bay residents. (Pizzaiolo, opened by veterans of Chez Panisse, has been in the works for a long time, however, but Sea Salt's opening was so quick and under the radar that one of its owners was herself unaware of the plans for a while -- read the charming tale about how her husband secretly got the ball rolling at www.seasaltrestaurant.com).

Pizzaiolo doesn't take any reservations, and the sagas my friends related to me inevitably involved how long they waited (scarcely any time at all, it seems, if you arrive soon after the 5:30 opening hour on a weeknight). Tom and I got there close to 7 on a Wednesday, and we were told it'd be 20 minutes to half an hour, time we passed pleasantly at the bar, being served wine by the gregarious and affable Omar and admiring the casual-but-hip setting, featuring wooden booths down the sides of the wide storefront and simple wooden tables and chairs. There's some art on the walls, but the most artful touch is the big wood-fired oven, clad in blue and burgundy tiles reminiscent of vintage California pottery (the kind you might find down the street at Porchlight Antiques; the whole block is full of shopping and dining treats, including Article Pract, a hip knitting shop [yes, there is such a thing], Doña Tomás, the wonderful Mexican restaurant, and the just-opened Bakeshop Betty, featuring homey scones, cookies, and sticky date pudding. And the excellent Genova Delicatessen is located in the minimall right across the street).

We were joined by Gary and Cathy and given a comfortable table, just when the hostess had predicted. At first the menu, printed on one page (with a carefully edited wine list on the back), looked short: half a dozen antipasti, four pastas, five pizzas, one special, and two contorni (vegetable sides). But, even minimally described ("garden lettuces" for a salad, "Tagliatelle Bolognese" for a pasta), I soon realized I wanted to eat everything on the list. I wonder now how we managed to skip sardines with sweet and sour beet relish, or arancini with saffron, fontina cheese, and gremolata, but this is what we ordered: an antipasto misto della casa, two pizzas, two pastas, one of the specials (roasted local wild king salmon), and a bowl of polenta with Gorgonzola, all to share.

The antipasto came on a big oval platter; the contents change daily, according to the whim of the kitchen, and one ingredient on ours had changed between the server's description of it and the plate arriving at our table: the prosciutto wrapped around bitter greens was now speck. Anyway, it was excellent. We also received a pile of assorted olives, slices of fresh mozzarella, a heap of cubed beet salad, some pickled green beans, and adorable hot little green and red peppers.

Everything else arrived soon after. The pizzas, thin-crust beauties charred in spots from the hot wood fire, were a classic margherita (tomato sauce and mozzarella, with a bufala mozzarella option for an extra $2), which they always have on offer, and a daily-changing version topped with tomato sauce, house-made sausage, and red onion. (You can add a topping of rocket, aka arugula, salad, for $2.50, or prosciutto and anchovies, each $3.50, to any pizza. We chose to add the fresh, peppery greens to our margherita.)

The pizza, the raison d'être for the place (check not only the name, but the Web site heading, which is "Really Great Wood-Fired Pizza in Oakland"), was swell, reminiscent of wonderful pizzas consumed at Pizzetta 211 and A16 across the bay, as well as at Chez Panisse, but I liked the other things we ate even more, especially the creamy polenta blended with pungent Gorgonzola (you can also choose sharp parmigiano or creamy mascarpone), and the sweet salmon, which peeled off in big, soft flakes, accompanied by fluffy, toothy farro, simply cooked corn cut off the cob, bright-tasting julienned basil, and topped with a slick of fragrant aioli. I would have liked a little more sauce, but then I could have eaten more of everything on the plate.

And the desserts were superb: a bowl of virginal white panna cotta, the tiniest bit more resilient than I like, but topped with scarlet, fat, juicy, carefully chosen Ella Bella raspberries, each one a jewel; a perfumey nectarine tart with delicate brown sugar and sour cream ice cream; and the simplest, a Riverdog peach cut in half, roasted in the oven, and served swimming in hot sweetened cream -- one of the best things I have ever eaten. (Really. I have already duplicated this dish at home, with a peach of lesser provenance, to good if not quite as good effect.) I suggested ordering a second immediately, but my companions, possibly fearing an insurrection from the hopeful clientele now grouped on the sidewalk right outside the big plate-glass windows, declined.

Or maybe they were just full. You may notice that the two pastas I mentioned above did not show up; so did we. But when we asked after them, the server seemed not to have written them down. There were even a few pieces of pizza left over, so nobody felt hungry. But I missed the spaghetti with pesto and cherry tomatoes and the tagliatelle Bolognese I never tasted. A couple of days later, I was strolling on the block with my father after lunch in another Oakland eatery, and we paused to peruse the menu. I was surprised to see that all the pasta dishes, and three of the five pizzas, were different, and there were now two main-course specials. I mourned the two pastas I hadn't tasted, but I felt cheered at the thought of spaghetti with giblet sauce and pork cooked in milk, even if I wasn't going to eat them right away. In such capable hands I felt safe ordering almost anything.

I relaxed, similarly, at a festive, not to say gluttonous, ladies' lunch shared at Sea Salt, whose menu I had also perused with my father after having lunch at Caffe Trieste, on its shopping-and-eating block: Bravely, the restaurant offers nothing at all for the non-seafood fancier, whose numbers include Dad. "You could have the bacon, lettuce, and trout sandwich," I said, "hold the trout." (Maybe the owners feel they have the meat options covered with their other restaurants, the Cal-Med Lalime's, the small-plates Fonda Solana, and the soon-to-be-opened barbecue place T. Rex.) The steamed lobster on a torpedo roll said "Mom" to me, so I invited her and my friend Joyce, who drove over from San Francisco with baby Violet in tow, eager for seafood, and Cari, who was going to join us for dessert, I thought, after a screening in the neighborhood.

Cari happily showed up earlier than I expected, so she was able to help us devour the plate of two tender, fragile, smallish Dungeness crab cakes that actually contained big hunks of crab and very little filler, perched on a bed of tiny diced gazpacho vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, cukes) and topped with a thatch of watercress sprigs; we also had a bowl of creamy clam chowder topped with crisp bacon and chopped parsley, which Joyce declared the best she'd ever had (I wouldn't go quite as far, but it was very, very good).

I might give such an accolade to the smoky grilled squid, in a smoky habanero and pumpkin seed sauce, adorned with impossibly bright red cherry tomatoes and whole crunchy pumpkin seeds, but I'd never had such a sauce before. The lobster sandwich was simply chunks of carefully cooked pink-and-ivory lobster meat piled on a split, fresh torpedo roll, dressed with melted butter (no mayo, no chopped celery, no nothing), and served with house-made potato chips. We shared a very lightly battered and fried, meaty soft-shell crab, with sautéed sweet corn and swirls of Green Goddess dressing, and a generous plate of fish and chips -- hunks of steaming rock cod, also lightly battered, with big house-cut french fries, accompanied by cups of a malt vinegar aioli and a spicy Thai curry ketchup that surprised me with its bite. Tom, who has an office around the corner, was wandering by on his way to a late lunch, unsure if Sea Salt was open on a Monday; he walked in and discovered us, sat down, and ordered a snappy romaine salad, with diced apples, carrots, radishes, rye croutons, and a Maytag blue cheese dressing.

His heap of yellowfin tuna tartare, with basil, black olives, and the unusual kick of fragrant oranges, served with more of the big house-made potato chips, arrived with our desserts: We'd ordered one of everything available that day, including a generous bowl of apricot sorbet that came with three buttery little shortbread bars and a thick jammy sludge of mixed berries; a thin wedge of ginger cheesecake in which the ginger flavor was elusive, but we were distracted by its topping of tart lemon curd and a bit of blackberry sauce; a roasted nectarine tart, the fruit piled in a puff-pastry shell and topped with crème fraîche and raspberry sauce; and Joyce's favorite, a miniature layer cake, called a chocolate-caramel almond torte, covered with more of the nuts and served with my favorite sweet of the day, a ball of fresh mint ice cream adorned with a big chocolate curl.

We admired the long, deep room, with an exposed-brick wall, a huge glassed-in kitchen, and a surprise: a lovely big garden with rustic wooden tables, which I promised myself would be the setting for my next debauched lunch at Sea Salt. The witty interior design includes a large wire sculpture of a fish hanging overheard (made by local high school students, we learned, when we inquired after the name of the artist) and spacious sea-themed bathrooms that are nicer than my apartment (I coveted the hook that mimics a large piece of red coral).

Sea Salt's menu changes frequently, too, though I've seen the BLT, the crab cakes, and the fish and chips there several times. Still, as with Pizzaiolo, I knew I was in such good hands that I could try new dishes with confidence, if the ones I had loved were no longer there.

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Meredith Brody

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