We’ve all had them. Distractions life throws at us that really take us out of our zone. Missed deadlines, days so busy you can’t think. Seems my own life has been throwing me a few of these unwanted road blocks lately. Too much to do, too little time, and everything is an emergency. But there’s a solution, and yes, it’s my solution to everything. Food. The right place, the right people. I mean, we all gotta eat, right?
Recently I was a guest at the newest branch of A16, San Francisco’s fantastic little “pizza place that could” has opened another venue on College Avenue in Oakland. Simple recipes, fresh local ingredients, all colliding together to tantalize patrons with real down home Italian flavors in the most modern of settings and presentation. A very Italian brand of old school meets uptown chic. Brava!
What is the perfect recipe for finding that peace of mind, that remains so elusive in this overly-connected-constantly-stimulated-never-have-a-minute-to-yourself world? Simplicity. Of space. Of flavor. Of experience. We all know that can be harder to find that it sounds. Everyone is competing for our palates with such tantalizing offerings, so much so that merely the idea of all the choices offered us in food is somewhat overwhelming. Never fear, that’s why you have me to run around and sample everything out there in advance, so you can know where you’ll find what you may be in the mood for. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, you can get what you need.
Just stepping in the door at Oakland’s new A16 eatery in Oakland was exhilarating. Not overly stimulating or jarring, the restaurant’s interior is welcoming in a classically Italian way, vibrating with life, but familiar and honest as Nonna’s kitchen. There is a lovely hopping bar to the right with a warm, spacious dining area on the left, which overlooks a curved sweep of open kitchen, whose centerpiece is a magnificently tiled wood-burning oven. The wafting scents of baking pizza immediately tantalize. I was transported back to the old country without feeling as though I’d been dropped all the way back in Ancient Rome itself. Modern shapes and colors remind one that they are very much in the present. The restaurant is in the former Garibaldi’s turned Garibaldi’s/Marzano, turned Hudson — and the updated digs indicate the current owners have figured out the space.
The food, however, now there’s where the real magic happens. We were treated to a sampling of just about everything on the menu, with an emphasis on the Chef’s special appetizers. It was early fall, so the bounties of the summer harvest had not quite vanished. After a couple of well-mixed and mightily creative cocktails, we began with a heavenly burrata. Creamy, fluffy and delicate, the creamy cheese was topped with a small mountain of ripe, sweet end-of-summer cherry tomatoes in hues of berry, sunset and plum, each one as fragrant and sweet as its appearance might suggest. The rich, liquid gold of extra virgin olive oil drizzled over every bite with a measured hand lent a wonderful expansion of harvest flavor to the simple tomatoes and cheese, without drowning out any of their natural goodness. If you haven’t ever had a good burrata, you might want to start with that. Only a few places do it this well and frankly, once you’ve had it done right, it’s like good sex. You can never go back.
Chef Rocky Maselli generously had the wait staff bring us two lovely additional treats, the first a dish of delicately handled fresh cucumber, in a simple salad preparation, the second a deft and flavorful dish of chilled meat terrine with leafy greens. Each was superb. The flavors of the ingredients were the stars of each dish. So simple yet SO very memorable. That’s really the secret to great cooking. And yes, I know I sound like a judge on one of your favorite Food Network shows, but when you actually experience it, you know it to be true.
These verdant delights were followed by a lovely fried squash blossom appetizer that arrived atop vibrant slivers of fragrant Mayer lemon. Is there anything like the smell of warm lemon? Yes, the taste of same with a good fried bit of something wonderful. Next came the piece-de-resistance of the food foreplay: a bright green orrichieti made with friarelli and senise peppers and topped with a crispy sprinkling of lamb sausage. The bright green pasta had the acidic bite of citrus, and the fatty crunchy sausage gave a beautiful contrast. Earth and sunshine, married on a plate. The meal was three months ago and I can still taste this dish.
The pizza we ordered was the Montanara Rockridge, billed as containing “lightly fried dough, smoky tomato sauce, burrata, basil”, but everyone knows a good pizza is made even better by personalization. We added the optional prosciutto and a fried egg. The pie was savory, perfectly toothsome and had the lovely thin crust I’ve grown so fond of. The egg melted into the cheese and ran along the meat, caressing it with my favorite form of natural gravy, soft-cooked egg yolk.
The wine list is extensive and extensively Italian, which these days is much to my liking. I’m all about a good Barolo. The wait staff is solicitous, friendly
and knowledgeable, and the pastry chef knows their trade, as was evidenced by the trio of chocolate atop a generous pool of molten caramel. Add in the mixologist magicians behind the bar, and A16 in Rockridge is the perfect recipe for an exceptional meal that will bring you some peace of mind after a hurried, stressful day. Or soothe a particular craving for a mind-blowing piece of pizza. Whichever floats your boat in the moment.
As always, I suggest you experience it for yourself. So check it out, and Buon Appetito!
A16 Restaurant Oakland
5356 College Avenue
Oakland, CA 94618