LOCANDA DA EVA – It’s interesting to see a food writer open his own restaurant… dining out every night (and often lunch, too) gives you a unique perspective from which to assess what elements create the most magic in atmosphere, while it inevitably imparts harsh comparison standards.
Robert Lauriston, who’s all over Chowhound boards and used to write for the SF Weekly, opened Locanda da Eva in what was the beloved Zax Tavern space with chef Huw Thornton (formerly of SPQR) in the kitchen.
I must admit, I wearied of yet another gourmet pizza opening (even as I never weary of eating good pizza) with antipasti, pasta, etc… and the Berkeley location means I couldn’t visit multiple times and still write this within any reasonable time frame of its opening. So my initial caveat is that this is based on one visit.
I was struck by the glow of woods and lighting as I walked through the bar but found the dining area a little chain-like in appearance. Ultra-dim lighting (making photos difficult to take) eased some of the blandness, casting a warm glow, as did a welcome jazz soundtrack.
Things accelerated the moment I got a drink. The lovely Jackie Patterson created the cocktail menu and it shows. A small, but thoughtful selection covers the range from Campari to rye. Temezcal ($9) is a smoky little imbibement of Siete Leguas Silver Tequila and Benesin Mezcal balanced with St. Germain and Dolin Blanc Vermouth. I was particularly impressed with Jackie’s Kingston Old Fashioned ($9). Another twist on one of my favorite classics, I feared it might be sweet with a combo of two rums (Appleton Extra and Smith & Cross). Not so. Rounded out with cane syrup, Angostura and orange bitters, it had a tinge of molasses sweetness but was spicy, earthy, round. Another, please.
Then there’s Lauriston’s obsessive, detailed wine list. Our server told me he’s fine to have someone take it home if they wished. I did. Not one selection is an afterthought, with thoughtful explanations and details. While he is not a sommelier, his love for vino shows in a predominantly Italian selection plus some French, Argentinian, and West Coast wines.
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Starters were strong, especially Pork Trotter Fritters ($9) with roasted corn and Poblano peppers, one of the better trotter dishes I’ve had this year. Also liked tender Beef Tongue ($9) with radishes, pickled onions and a perky tomatillo salsa brightening the meat.
On the pasta front, al dente house pastas satisfied, particularly Spaghetti ($16) with walnut pesto, cherry tomatoes, Pecorino Romano. I also sampled Strozzapreti ($16), rich with chiles, lamb sausage, roasted eggplant, tomatoes, ricotta salata. But I unexpectedly preferred Pork & Fennel Sausage (house made) Pizza ($14). It certainly isn’t the best pizza I’ve ever had but was utterly satisfying and savory topped with roasted gypsy peppers, Grana Padano, red onions, and Robiola cheese.
Pork Loin Saltimbocca ($19) is solid, wrapped in La Quercia prosciutto with a side mostarda of nectarines, currants, radicchio. Even better? Braised Chicken & Ricotta Meatballs ($18) with kale, onions, Grana Padano, spiced with sumac and cumin. The meatballs are soft, dissolving with a mild, meaty finish.
An unusual and fun dish, and oddly enough, may have been my favorite here, was a seasonal side that is now off the menu: Fried Brentwood Corn on the Cob ($6) with a salsa verde aioli-style dip. Crispy, juicy, sweet, it takes the vegetable in a playful direction.
I went for the most popular dessert: Peanut Butter & Chocolate Chip Cookies ($8), filled with peanut butter gelato, bitter chocolate ganache, and sea salt. It’s as pleasing, peanuty and creamy as it sounds.
Our waiter’s recommend of a Polenta Torte ($8) soaked in chamomile grappa liqueur, covered in nectarines, blackberries and citrus mascarpone, was a straightforward, pure, sophisticated finish.