I have a great story about A16, the Southern Italian restaurant in San Francisco. A few years ago, I was in Argentina, eating my way through Buenos Aires' chic Palermo Soho neighborhood, when I tucked into an unassuming pizzeria for a wood-fired slice.
As I bit into the thin, blistered dough and bubbly, burrata-flecked Marzano sauce, the chef-owner, who had heard me chatting with my husband and knew we were from San Francisco, stopped by to ask what we thought of his food.
"Oh, it's very good, thank you," I said, covering my mouth between chews.
"Yes," he said, leaning in. "But is it as good as A16?"
The chef, an Italian immigrant, wasn't comparing his food to a competitor in his city or country. He wanted to know if it was as good as a restaurant thousands of miles away -- in California.
With a reputation like that, restaurateurs looking to expand could easily just replicate the Marina original down to the silverware. But when A16 co-owners Shelley Lindgren and Victoria Libin signed a lease in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, they understood the mission: to bring something unique and dynamic to the East Bay.
And Oaklandish it is. The new A16, which opened in June, is much larger than the original, with seating for 48 at tables and another 30 at the chef's counter and bar. It has a glass garage door that opens on College Avenue and a liquor license that allows Lindgren's husband, Greg, co-owner of San Francisco's Rye and Rosewood, to craft cocktails using grappa, amaro and other Italian spirits.
The menu? It still features the dreamy, wood-fired pizzas of Naples and the saucy meatballs of Campania, but A16 Rockridge also explores the seafood-rich culture of the eastern side of Autostrada A16, the restaurant's namesake, a highway that runs from Naples in Campania east to Canosa in Puglia.
Executive chef Rocky Maselli is Puglian, and he offers a daily selection of local crudo, including San Francisco anchovy with almond and chervil ($9), Marin miyagi oyster with citrus ($3), and Mendocino sea urchin with dolce Verde olives ($12) in addition to antipasto, pastas and oven-roasted fish and meats.
That imported, tiled oven is the centerpiece of the open kitchen, churning out mouth-watering pizzas, like Montanara Rockridge ($17) with pillowy, lightly-fried dough, smoky tomato sauce, burrata and basil; and Salsiccia + Vongole ($20), a pie cradling shelled clams, lemon zest, parsley and sausage.
I recommend the tennis-racket shaped Rachetta ($20) with tomato sauce, prosciutto, basil, fior di latte and piopinni mushrooms with ricotta and pecorino riserva baked into the "handle." You cut it with a pair of stainless-steel scissors.
Entrees are generous, as they should be for the prices. On our visit, we spied whole roasted trout ($34) decked out with Romano beans, cherry tomato and caper aioli, and a pork chop ($30) dressed with watermelon rind agrodolce, red onion and parsley. I really loved the rabbit meatballs ($26), herb-flecked and served around roasted romanesco-drizzled Jimmy Nardello peppers and a chunk of roasted fennel, as well as the grilled lamb chop and skewered sausage ($30) on a bed of shelling bean ragu with dry-farmed tomato gratinata. Hearty indeed.
On top of that, each entree comes with a contorno, or side dish ($6-$7 when ordered solo), which on our visit were the following choices -- mixed chicories, roasted summer squash, and fava secca with gold chard. We found the texture of the fava beans a bit dry and powdery (perhaps they were overcooked) but liked the tangy preserved lemon.
That lemon was a key flavor profile in Maselli's rustic cuisine, giving zest and a pucker to several dishes, including the primo (pastas). We enjoyed a small order of the cavatelli ($12; large, $20) with chanterelle mushroom, cherry tomato, pancetta and ricotta salata, but decided against the paccheri ($12/$20) when our waitress educated us about how the tubular pasta cooks up extra al dente. We appreciated knowing that in advance.
The service at A16 Rockridge was excellent on our bustling Saturday night visit. Our server knew Campanian cuisine as if she grew up on it, and she could successfully pair any dish with one of Shelley Lindgren's indigenous Italian wines. She was breezy and confident and nailed it each time.
The only recommendation I didn't like was the black pepper gelato that came with our cherry tomato upside down cake ($9). It tickled my throat and made me cough. At this time of year, basil or lemon gelato would've made more sense. But that moist cake, with its shelf of caramelized, sweet tomatoes, tasted like summer as it's slowly slipping away.
* * * ½
WHERE: 5356 College Ave., Oakland.
HOURS: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays. Late-night menu until 11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays and Sundays; until midnight Fridays-Saturdays.
CUISINE: Southern Italian
VEGETARIAN: Try the wood-fired Montanara Rockridge pizza with basil and lightly-fried dough or the Chitarra pasta with fried eggplant and herb ricotta
BEVERAGES: Italian-inspired cocktails, grappa, amaro and Shelley Lindgren's Italian-focused wine program featuring more than 500 wines, with an emphasis on indigenous varietals from Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Sardinia and Sicily. Also, half-bottle carafes and 40 wines by the glass.
RESERVATIONS: Strongly recommended
NOISE LEVEL: Loud
PARKING: Street parking
KIDS: Pizza pizza!
PLUSES: Several stunning rustic dishes. Entrees are generous.
MINUSES: Three words: Black pepper gelato
DATE OPENED: June 1
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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