Click photo to enlarge
Bellanico owner Chris Shepherd

Among a trio of small tables nestled between a bustling wine bar and a fully booked banquette, a toddler and mom play tug-of-warm spaghetti — their giggling faces moving ever closer as the wobbly strand disappears.

Another table enjoys cicchetti — Venetian bar snacks — nibbling on fried green olives while sipping a crisp Vermentino.

Today's neighborhood restaurants continue to get more sophisticated, just as they become more relaxed. At Bellanico, the combination draws in families, older couples and young foodies from the surrounding Oakland's Glenview neighborhood. We should all have such a place we can walk to, but if you don't, Bellanico is worth the drive.

Here, the kitchen bleeds into the bar, and the bar is the heart of the dining room. It creates a lively pulse, with wine and conversation flowing in equal measure.

Chef Jonathan Luce's housemade pastas and main courses — served in deep, oversized, wide-rimmed bowls — echo Bellanico's sleek, built-from-scratch decor (it broke ground in August). Luce was most recently chef at Oakland's Pearl, where he started as sous chef under former Metro Lafayette chef Mark Lusardi. Luce also learned much from Daniel Patterson (Elisabeth Daniel, Coi), whom he credits for the uncluttered presentations. But Luce's real inspiration comes from a little Italian trattoria called Al Di La in Brooklyn, Luce's first job out of culinary school.


Advertisement

Still, Luce and sous chef Robert Hopton (also from Pearl), are just the muscle behind a couple's dream. Chris Shepherd (oversees the menu) and Elizabeth Frumusa (oversees the wine list) — owners of the soulful Aperto in Potrero Hill — folded together their kids' nicknames, Nico and Bella, to establish this Oakland outpost.

That a quiet, old-style neighborhood so quickly adopted such a mature restaurant speaks to the opportunities awaiting outside places such as Piedmont and Solano avenues.

"I think the East Bay is still pretty wide open," Luce told me over the phone.

On my first visit, I shared a multi-course affair with a chef who lives just a few blocks away. As solid as our meal was, I more thoroughly enjoyed Bellanico when I sat solo at the rough granite bar for salad and pasta. The aesthetic calls for simplicity.

The Sformato Di Gorgonzola ($8) is a precious plate of glistening watercress, a warm and creamy timbale of cheese, and a few assertively spiced walnuts.

Taglioni Pepati ($13) was a dish I thought about all the way home and into the next day. The pasta had snap, the chunky sauce a rich tomato backbone, and the goodies — crisp squares of bacon, hot wilted arugula and perfect rounds of spicy green chile — provided playful complexity.

I do love the idea of cicchetti, and the chef and I snacked away happily while we mapped out our meal on that first visit. The olives ($3) came crusted in coarse cornmeal and dusted with paprika, while little croutons of polenta for the Baccala Mantecato ($4) were topped with salt cod richly whipped with cream and olive oil.

Under the Antipasti, we chose Fried Pork Belly ($8) — three fingers poached and then crusted in that same textured cornmeal. Though lean, the pork still exuded enough fat to coat our mouths, so a beautiful spot of salad — celery root, fennel and apple — was just too delicate to cut through.

For the Primi, we settled on the Swiss Chard Malfatti ($12), light dumplings made from a mixture of Italian ricotta and the braised, tender chard leaves — then served with a splash of brown butter and sage. It's how gnocchi should eat; a brilliant vegetarian dish.

The entrees (Secondi) are all under $20, and the two we had were generous — but like much of the menu, more of an expression of winter than spring. A lamb shank ($17) came with plump white beans, Brussels sprouts and a rich, dark jus that demanded a spoon, which we didn't have. Black Cod ($18) was meltingly tender, with crisp skin, served on pancetta-flecked baby lentils with a vivid green ring of parsley sauce.

A neighborhood trattoria needs more than good food, of course, to succeed. It needs warm personalities, and the servers — dressed in black — on both my visits were sparkling: lighthearted and welcoming without being intrusive.

Luce calls himself a "dessertatarian," and the two sweets we tried were certainly inventive. Panna Cotta ($6) came in a glass laced with tangerine and a sneaky hint of saffron. Luce's Bombolini ($6) brought cinnamon-dusted doughnut holes — a little too dense and elastic for my taste, but intriguingly matched to a sage vanilla custard sauce.

I'm sure that spaghetti-slurping mom and son would have had a grand time with these little fried balls. And Luce would only cheer them on: He has three girls of his own, including one born nearly the same day Bellanico opened.

What more do you want from a neighborhood restaurant?

Reach Nicholas Boer at 925-943-8254 or nboer@bayarea newsgroup.com.

Bellanico
***
  • FOOD: ***
  • AMBIENCE: ***
  • SERVICE: ***
  • WHERE: 4238 Park Blvd., Oakland.
  • HOURS: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays;
    5:30-10 p.m. Fridays-
    Saturdays. Monday-Friday lunch begins May 5.
  • PRICES: $$. Pastas and entrees $12-$18.
  • CONTACT: 510-336-1180; www.bellanico.net.
  • CUISINE: Italian.
  • VEGETARIAN: A strong focus of the chef. Look for the farro and butter lettuce salads; Swiss Chard Malfatti, a kind of oversized gnocchi; and risotto with nettles.
  • BEVERAGES: Superior, eclectic and reasonably priced list, focusing on Italy, with some 30 options by the glass. Tastes and flights also available.
  • RESERVATIONS: Only
    accepted for six or more.
  • NOISE LEVEL: Tight
    seating can create a loud experience.
  • PARKING: Street parking not too difficult.
  • KIDS: Very much welcome; kids pasta ($5) listed on
    regular menu.
  • PLUSES: Inspired Italian cuisine; great wine list; sleek ambience; sweet service.
  • MINUSES: A few dishes were heavy, lacking a spring touch.
  • DATE OPENED: March 18, 2008.

    POLICY
    The Times does not let restaurants know that we are coming in to do a review, and we strive to remain anonymous. If we feel we have been recognized or are given special treatment, we will tell you. We pay for our meal, just as you would.

    Star key
    * Fair
    ** Good
    *** Great
    **** Extraordinary

    Price code
    $ Typical entree under $10
    $$ Typical entree under $20
    $$$ Typical entree under $30
    $$$$ Typical entree under $40