Oliveto Keeps On Going Strong

Crudo of local halibut with shaved purple artichokes.

Twenty-five years is a very long time in restaurant years.

But that’s just how long Oliveto in Oakland has managed to not only survive, but to flourish.

A parade of talented chefs have manned the kitchen over the years, including Paul Bertolli (who went on to found his fabulous Fra’Mani salumi company in Berkeley), and most recently, Paul Canales, who was at Oliveto for the past five years.

In December 2010, Jonah Rhodehamel took over as head chef, after previous stints as sous chef at three San Francisco establishments:  La Folie, Zinnia, and Americano.

He’s already started putting his stamp on the rustic, Italian fare here. He started a new dry-aging program to age rib-eyes for three weeks to concentrate their beefy flavor.

Recently, I had a chance to try his menu as a guest of the restaurant.

Enter the doors, and to your right will be the cozy, more casual cafe. If you go up the stairs, you’ll find the warm, inviting restaurant with its bank of windows that overlook lively College Avenue.

My husband and I started with a crudo of local halibut ($13), clean and bright tasting, with the slight bitterness of puntarella chicory and shaved purple artichokes.

The prettiest salad ever.

Rhodehamel also sent out a roasted root vegetable salad ($11.50) that was as gorgeous as a still-life painting. This seemingly simple dish was spectacular, with the carrots, beets and turnips roasted in salt to concentrate their flavor and sugars, and render them tender-crisp. Even an avowed vegetable hater would have a hard time not eating every last bite.

Oliveto has long been known for its house-made pastas, now made with local flours, so we just had to indulge.

Red winter wheat penne all bolognese ($14.50) will surprise anyone who thinks they hate the texture of whole wheat pasta. Unlike so many store-bought varieties that cook up with an awful gummy texture, the whole wheat penne had a nutty flavor and a toothsome texture that was a pleasure to bite into. The bolognese was rich and hearty like a good one should be.

Whole wheat penne with bolognese.

Durum wheat spaghetti with sea urchin. Oh my!

Durum wheat spaghetti with Santa Barbara sea urchin, lemon and Sinese chili ($15) again had a lovely texture, plus the sweet-briny addition of sea urchin. This was one silky dish.

Yes, that's a lot of fat. And it's quite wonderful.

Although the rib-eye caught his eye, my husband opted for the spit-roasted heritage breed, Wattle Creek pork belly ($25). Thick slices with astonishing ripples of fat were fanned out on the plate over farro, roasted parsnips and wonderful picked cherries. One taste and you’ll realize why chefs go mad for this breed with its succulent flesh.

Pigeon with wild rice and whole grain polenta.

My dish of pigeon ($23) was stuffed with wild rice. The meat was intense in flavor, almost like a revved up duck, but not gamy in the least. It came with Red Flint corn polenta, made from heritage Italian corn that’s now grown in California for the restaurant. A sandy brown in color, rather than the usual yellow, it was surprisingly light in texture.

Sorbetto with the bright zing of tangelo.

Ricotta cornmeal tart with kumquat compote.

For dessert, there was a scoop of sunny tangelo sorbetto ($7.50) that came with a crisp butter cookie. We also enjoyed a crunchy cornmeal tart filled with creamy housemade ricotta, and garnished with a sticky kumquat compote.

It was a meal that shows just why this 25-year-old restaurant remains so relevant.

Tomorrow: Cooking My Own Whole-Grain Polenta from Oliveto

More: Oliveto’s Whole Hog Event

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  • A wonderful meal! I really love that tartlet…



  • Wow, I never saw a pigeon with that much meat! I have to check out this place since it’s in my neighborhood. The cafe is always a guaranteed fun spot for a casual lunch. BTW, I hope Meat Boy has your same luck with good cholesterol because that pork belly looked like he was just pumping fat into his blood vessels. Yikes!

  • I’m looking forward to Jonah’s cooking at the “Outstanding in the Field” event in Sunol.

  • Carolyn, that looks like lovely meal. You had me at ripples of fat. Have you ever managed to have their whole hog meal? I hear that’s pretty incredible. Thanks for sharing your meal.

  • Those pastas sure look drool-worthy. Looks like they might rival a lot of my favorite pasta places in SF.

  • What a gorgeous roasted root vegetable salad. And so beautifully presented. The spaghetti with sea urchin had my mouth watering as well.
    Love to hear about restaurants like this that just keep getting better over the years!

  • Wow 25 years is definitely a LONG time for a restaurant but looking at their food explains why! YUM! I’ve only ever had Pigeon fried at Chinese restaurants as a kid but your dish looks delicious!

  • a wonderful evening, 25yrs wow a sure sign of a class act kitchen, I agree some whole wheat pasta (store) really is terribly gummy..your plate looks amazing!!


  • what a gem of a restaurant..thanks for sharing again 🙂 The pasta looks especially gorgeous and with sea urchin yummm

  • Wow, great selection of dishes, no wonder they’ve been going strong for so long!

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