A wonderful lunch at a new neighborhood restaurant in Oakland later led us across the bay to an even more wonderful dinner at a restaurant that has been feeding its neighborhood for 16 years. The new Oakland place is Bellanico (4238 Park, 510-336-1180, www.bellanico.net), in the Glenview neighborhood. It's a modest storefront with an open kitchen, a small bar, a few outside tables, and perhaps a dozen or so wooden deuces inside. It functions not only as an eatery but also as a wine bar, featuring European wines with an emphasis on Italian, with more than 25 available by the glass and six different flights. The name is pronounced Bella-nico, since it's named for the daughters of chef-owner Chris Shepherd and partner Elizabeth Frumusa.
Our perfect little lunch started by splitting a sformata ($10), a glossy pudding made with goat cheese, surrounded by a heap of sliced heirloom tomatoes and ripe peaches. We went on to a hearty, crisp pork Milanese ($14) served with a salad of escarole, shaved fennel, and green olives in a bright citrus vinaigrette, and a focaccia panini ($8) stuffed with luscious, falling-apart pork shoulder braised in milk, with watercress and onions. Dessert was a tender almond cake heaped with more fresh peaches and whipped cream ($6). It's easy to love Bellanico's malfatti ($12), a kind of chard-and-cheese dumplings that are like ravioli without pasta.
Bellanico is the second restaurant from its owners, who've been running Aperto in Potrero Hill since 1992. Within minutes of finishing our lunch, I was making a reservation for dinner at Aperto.
Or trying to. It doesn't take reservations for parties under six, but if you're persistent, it has a system that seems a little complicated, but it worked. Staff put you on a list and ask you to call just before coming, so they can give you a table ahead of any walk-ins.
Aperto was only about a quarter full around 6 on a Sunday night. (We were warned the place would fill up by 7.) The bright room seems even smaller than the Oakland storefront; there are about 15 small wooden tables, and one round one that seats four, most with wooden chairs but a few lined up along a wooden banquette, and eight or so high seats perched at a wooden counter along the window overlooking 18th Street. We could see some of the other neighborhood restaurants — Chez Papa, Chez Maman, Baraka, Goat Hill Pizza — that make this Potrero Hill's Restaurant Row.
As we studied the menu — about a dozen dishes listed under antipasti e insalata, nine under paste e grande piatti, with about half a dozen specials chalked on a board and repeated by our server — I admired the simple but effective decor: sage green below and cream above a rust-colored wainscot rail. There were a few rust-and-cream-colored pendant lights, some framed photographs, and a large old armoire.
We started by sharing a plate of housemade sweet corn ravioli ($13), six fat little packets floating in a simple, gleaming, golden wine and butter sauce studded with chunks of pancetta, pine nuts, slivered garlic, and just enough fresh thyme. The pasta was supple, almost translucent, and the ricotta filling was sweet, corny, and mildly cheesy. An amazing dish.
We went on to a simple but divine salad of frisée and arugula with sliced peaches, tiny purple plums, and several rosy heaps of prosciutto in a vinaigrette with only a suspicion of gorgonzola ($9). About 18 oven-roasted mussels ($9) swam in a pungent saffron-shellfish broth heady with onions, shallots, and spiced with arbol chiles – much spicier than the usual moules marinières. The only disappointment was the crab cakes ($10), two flattish discs prettily propped on frisée heaped with a delightful fresh roasted pepper and corn salad with a side of spicy aioli. The cakes were a trifle bready, and tasted as if they'd been made with frozen or canned crab. But we were assured that the shellfish was fresh — in a house that prides itself on using "the best local, seasonal, and organic products" it can find.
The grande piatti that followed were grande indeed. The meats and fowl were unusually succulent, but what made the dishes outstanding were the respect and intelligence with which the accompanying vegetables were handled. The juicy flattened and roasted Fulton Valley chicken ($15), lightly seasoned with oregano and topped with tangy preserved lemons, was served atop equally juicy chunks of pale green and yellow summer squash and sided with a variety of just-warmed olives. A special that night of tender cider-glazed braised spare ribs ($19.75) that seemed like a pound of meat sat on a base of wonderful texture: stringy spaghetti squash woven with thicker strands of cavolo nero, a black cabbage, studded with tiny sliced beech mushrooms and flavored with fresh tarragon in golden natural pork jus.
The most delicious component of the meal was the vegetable that came with the slow-braised organic lamb shank ($17), whose rich dark meat fell off the bone at the touch of a fork. Its juices enriched a mixture of shelling beans, white, brown, and speckled, with lots of fresh corn kernels. (The combination is also available as a side dish for $5.) We'd forgotten we'd planned to order a special that night of brussels sprouts leaves sautéed with garlic ($6), but we didn't miss it since none of us were able to clean our plates, and the mains were more impressive than much of what we'd had lately at much higher price points.
Afterward we shared the warm chocolate soufflé cake ($6.50), more soufflé-like than the standard molten chocolate cake, served with whipped cream and Italian wet nuts (sliced toasted almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts in syrup) that we'd had the foresight to order early, heeding the 15-to-20-minute warning; and a well-made pomegranate crème brûlée ($6), slightly purple under its crust.
The very reasonable wine list (about a dozen whites and 20 reds priced between $28 and $80, with most bottles under $40) is, like Bellanico's, tilted toward the Italian, but we tried only a glass of pleasant Prosecco (di Valdobbiadene, $8).
Every component of the Aperto experience, including the excellent service, seemed equally thoughtful. Reminding you that this is a neighborhood place, there's even a kids' pasta available for $5 featuring any shape pasta, served plain or with roasted tomato sauce, butter and cheese, or cream and cheese.
On another visit, we'd look forward to trying the risotto with house-made fennel sausage and bell peppers ($14), or the taglioni "pepati" ($13) with smoked bacon, garlic, jalapeños, and roasted tomato sauce whose aroma we could inhale from a neighboring table. Or we'd try the pancetta hash ($10) at brunch. With just one meal at each spot, Bellanico and Aperto had become two of our favorite restaurants.