With Chop Bar, Chris Pastena showed us his love for comfort food. With Tribune Tavern and Grand Tavern, his pride in community. But, with Lungomare, which opened in February in Jack London Square, the Oakland restaurateur makes his first serious culinary splash.
The restaurant, which replaced Miss Pearl's on the waterfront, specializes in the cuisine of northern Italy. Chef Craig DiFonzo (Hotel Luca's Cantinetta Piero) has constructed a menu around Tuscan and Ligurian specialties -- a mix of seafood, house-cured meats, rustic pizza and fresh pasta, with locally sourced ingredients and some impressive details (yes, that's an "L" stamped on your pasta).
The service on a recent weeknight was so good we felt utterly doted upon. The only thing lacking was ambience. The fantastic nautical view was nice, but the dining room and restaurant itself were cold and lacked personality. They need to do something to warm up that sprawling, corporate hotel vibe.
But back to that well-executed menu. DiFonzo hails from Boston but has worked in kitchens throughout Italy. As a result, he has developed a real love and talent for making artisanal pasta with Old World techniques and crafting tasty little treats from whole pig.
A good example is the wood-fired Ciccioli pizza ($14), dressed with caramelized onions, Swiss chard, pickled red onion and taleggio, a tangy, smear-ripened cheese from Lombardy. To make the ciccioli, DiFonzo cures, compresses and ages pork belly and pork shoulder into a dry, crunchy, addictive snack often called ciccioli frolli in Emilia Romagna and other parts of northern Italy. We loved it.
Another winner: Panzanella Salad ($9). Instead of the traditional tomatoes and mozzarella, this bread salad was summer-themed, with grilled chunks of peaches and nectarines with warm croutons. Briny feta cheese and strips of pickled red onion balanced the sweetness. So yum.
In fact, since most entrees cost more than $20, you might consider filling up on antipasti and a glass of wine off the tap ($8-$11). From the chewy Grilled Octopus ($12) with heirloom beans and pancetta to a bowl of creamy (but surprisingly vegan) Roasted Fennel and Yukon Gold potato soup ($7), we thought the appetizers were among Lungomare's strongest dishes.
If you like whole fish, I encourage you to try one of Lungomare's sustainable offerings. Just keep in mind it's not a lot of food. Consider pairing the Branzino ($26), a Mediterranean Sea bass, with a vegetable side such as the Broccoli Rapini with chili and garlic ($6) or with the killer Risotto ($19) made with sweet corn and Maine lobster.
We ordered the Daurade ($25), a dense sea bream, which was fired to perfection and presented to us before heading back to the kitchen, where it was deboned and dressed with Agrodulce sauce, DiFonzo's play on sweet and sour. The sauce featured currants, raisins, diced sweet peppers, pistachios and oven-ripened tomatoes spiked with sherry vinegar. It was so tasty, I wanted to put it on everything.
The only dish that disappointed was the Porchetta ($25). This traditional boneless rolled pork roast is known for fat and moisture, but our slice came out dry and cold. I've had more succulent (and cheaper) versions at 54 Mint and off the Roli Roti truck. Luckily, Squid Ink Chitarra ($16) with clams arrived piping hot. Chitarra is a harp-shaped pasta cutting tool that creates perfectly round tendrils. Lungomare serves it in a savory broth spiked with garlic and Calabrian chili.
Once again, my favorite part was the tesa, tiny bits of cured pork that DiFonzo makes by curing pork belly with clove, red chili, garlic, red wine and salt. Instead of rolling it and hanging it like pancetta, he presses it and ages it for a month before dicing and folding those itsy-bitsy pink prizes into pasta and pizza. For me, that kind of handiwork and dedication is worth a return visit.
* * *
WHERE: 1 Broadway, Oakland
CONTACT: 510-444-7171; www.lungomareoakland.com
HOURS: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; until 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
CUISINE: Northern Italian
VEGETARIAN: Nettle Mezzaluna pasta with ricotta, peas, sage and walnuts or Wild Mushroom pizza
BEVERAGES: Handmade farmers market sodas and cocktails, plus eight local beers on tap, full spirits menu and wine program with tap, carafe, by-the-glass and bottle selections
NOISE LEVEL: Low
PARKING: Underground parking
KIDS: Ours loved the Ciccioli pizza as well as the farro that came with the Porchetta.
PLUSES: Tuscan and Ligurian specialties made with micro-local ingredients. Doting service.
MINUSES: Porchetta was a bit cold and dry.
DATE OPENED: Feb. 7, 2013.
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40