Locanda da Eva
2826 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley
Details: Mostly Italian; emphasis on sustainability and local ingredients; dinner only; full bar and great wine menu; street parking and pay lot nearby
Locanda da Eva opened in Berkeley in July, taking over a supposedly “cursed” space that housed Mazzini Trattoria, Zax Tavern and Maritime East in recent years. Prior to that, Casa de Eva, a Mexican place and inspiration for the current name, was there for 37 years, so maybe the space just needs to find its legs again.
The other night I tagged along to a PR dinner with GraceAnn Walden of The Yummy Report, allowing me to give you a first-look review here in my modest venue.
The locale was pleasing to me, being a number of blocks from where Telegraph meets the Cal campus and away from serious parking mayhem. There were few other diners that Wednesday evening, but it’s a bit far-flung to catch campus-related foot traffic. Two of the few were Joanne Weir and her husband, so there was certainly quality if not quantity.
Locanda da Eva is what my father would have called “CALM-fter-bul,” which is “comfortable” for people of a certain age who grew up in New York City.
There’s plenty of medium-toned wood and the lighting is subtle. I’m always grateful when I don’t see fixtures hanging at eye level over tables, being photosensitive. It means someone is actually thinking about function. The warmth blends with an airy feel due to the generous spacing of tables and chairs, and the kitchen is open to view.
Nude paintings a la Eve and olive branches hang throughout.
We spent a little time at the bar. GraceAnn investigated cocktails and chatted up the bartender, while I indulged in a sweet and rich glass of Navarro Gewürztraminer grape juice.
I’m not qualified to talk about mixed drinks and bar culture, but I can tell you the seats are comfy and that I’d probably visit often to have a glass of wine if I lived in the immediate ‘hood. It’s very civilized, and I love the wine menu, being a fan of Italian reds. While it’s not a menu that caters to the masses, the masses would have a hard time going wrong here. Wines have been carefully selected to complement the menu, and there are a number of reasonably-priced options.
An interesting thing about Locanda da Eva is that its owner, Robert Lauriston, is a food writer. He’s blogged and written reviews for SF Weekly, and contributed to other Bay Area publications, like East Bay Express. I know him mainly from Chowhound, though.
Some years ago I had a short but intense fling with Chowhound, which I threw over for a long-term relationship with Facebook. As I recall, there was nary a Bay Area thread without Robert Lauriston commentary. His well-stated contributions showed significant macro and micro-level knowledge of the Bay Area food scene and food in general, and were comprehensive in their attack of the subject at hand. Knowing this made certain things about my dining experience at Locanda da Eva make sense.
Case in point: words. The wine menu is eight pages long, has an introduction, there’s a paragraph about each wine, it’s dated on the lower left-hand corner, paginated on the right, and perfectly formatted. The daily dinner menu provides all you need to know, from practices related to values to the price of Locanda da Eva T-shirts.
I loved seeing “…complimentary Acme bread by request…,” thinking that perhaps one should not take bread service for granted.
The dinner menu had good variety in terms of apps and entrees, and there were several pizzas and pastas. Provenance is king here, so adjectives, many of them formal, were peppered throughout. It wasn’t just “kale,” but “wilted Dirty Girl kale,” on the second pizza down.
We had a nice young man as our server. Efficient and friendly – he kept an eye on goings-on at our table and orchestrated the arrival of selections so that we were neither rushed nor waiting.
Locanda da Eva does not provide butter for bread. Instead, they offer olive oil for dipping – for a $2 fee! The oil was fruity, peppery and fine, but not worthy of a surcharge.
If you want to avoid dry bread, you have to pay. Not in keeping with the generosity of spirit that should be at the heart of every eating establishment, is it? Come on – provide butter and olive oil under that old “cost of doing business” saw. Geez.
UPDATE – 9/15/10: Robert Lauriston contacted me to let me know that olive oil would now be complimentary upon request. Nice!
We selected several appetizers, a pasta and two entrees, and were able to choose a gussied up vegetable side with each entree – a nice touch, given that they listed at $5 to $6 each a la carte.
Execution was very good – and this with a meal involving several cooking styles and ingredients requiring a knowing hand, like albacore tuna.
Flavors were bright and distinct, and most things were well-seasoned. You need to ask for salt and pepper here, by the way.
The fried pork trotters with roasted corn and Poblano peppers ($9) was wonderful. You’ve never had them, you say? Trotters, as the name suggests, are pork feet with part of the shank attached. They’re cooked until the meat falls off the bone. The meat is then used in a preparation that takes advantage of its gelatinous texture – a by-product of cooking down the tendon. At Locanda, the trotter meat/jelly is formed into little blocks, coated and fried crisp.
The coating on my square o’trotter encased its deeply flavored, silky contents perfectly, and provided a textural contrast. The corn bed added a sweet crunch. If you order only one appetizer here, make it this one.
The house-made bresaola ($9), served with crostini and pickled veggies, was a little bland and too dry – even for an air-dried beef product. You may want to have lemon wedges and olive oil handy.
The local calamari with avocado, garbanzo beans, lemon-herb vinaigrette and senise powder ($11) was tasty, but chick pea-heavy. The fresh calamari – though cut incomprehensibly small – were nevertheless cooked perfectly. The vinaigrette was nice and light, and everything in this salad – which is basically what it was – married well. A bright, well-seasoned dish that lacked in its main ingredient. By the by, I had no idea what “senise powder” was. When I plugged it into Google, my first hit was Locanda da Eva! A little more research showed it to be Peperoni di Senise – peppers from Senise, in Southern Italy, dried and ground into powder.
It’s an Italian place, so we had to try a pasta dish, which they split for us.
The strozzapreti with roasted eggplant, chiles, tomatoes, lamb sausage, herbs and ricotta salata ($16) was a beautifully executed dish. The “priest choker” pasta – like long cavatelli that twist and curl a bit when cooked – arrived perfectly al dente. The sauce was a rich, thick ragu peppered with bits of mildly spicy sausage and eggplant. There was lots going on here and it all melded perfectly – like a good Bolognese. And, like a good Bolognese, it was not overly saucy or tomatoey. GraceAnn commented on the moistness of the ricotta salata shreds, which seemed more like fresh mozzarella.
The glass of wine I chose to accompany my meal – Ricci Bonarda El Matt 2008 – worked spectacularly with this dish, by the way.
I have to hand it to the kitchen: they put out a well-seasoned and expertly cooked piece of albacore tuna. If you’ve ever prepared this at home, you know there’s a narrow margin between sashimi and Starkist – even when working with a fresh, beautiful piece of tuna.
The griddled local albacore with roasted Italian sweet peppers, basil, and grilled summer squash ($19) was GraceAnn’s entree, but I wished I’d ordered it – which is a first. I never, ever, select salmon or tuna as my entree because I figure I can overcook them myself for less than half the price.
This was nice and rare, and the whole peppers were charred outside and tender and sweet inside. I didn’t bother with the squash.
The Brentwood (what the hell, when you got it, flaunt it, I guess) fried corn on the cob with salsa verde maionese ($6 a la carte, but you can choose this as a side with an entree) tasted like grilled corn. I would not have guessed it was fried – not greasy at all. I thought it needed a little salt, and the sauce was a little sweet for my taste, but I was happy with this rustic, straighforward side dish.
I chose the braised chicken and ricotta meatballs with kale, onions, sumac, cumin and Grana Padana ($18), which was übersavory. There were five cloud-like meatballs in a broth that was concentrated and salty and needed some kind of neutral, absorbent foil – like bread, potatoes or pasta. While I liked the flavor and even the soft texture of the meatballs, I found the dish to be overworked, with the integrity of individual ingredients lost in a heightened state of umami. I would order this again only as a “table” entree.
I had hoped to use the side of fried potatoes with pickled cabbage and Calabrian chiles ($5, same bit about the entree) as a textural contrast to my meatball entree – envisioning a batch of crispy potatoes straight out of a sizzling frying pan.
The fried potatoes turned out to be more like tired roast potatoes that had been warmed over. Bland, too, and a real letdown.
- On impulse, I had a latte and the peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies with peanut butter gelato, bitter chocolate ganache and sea salt ($8) for dessert. The ganache almost froze on the gelato, which I liked, and the cookies were buttery and light. There was not too much salt here, which I appreciated, given the volume of fine-dining desserts these days with sea salt.
Our server noticed that I wasn’t drinking my latte, and apologized if it wasn’t up to snuff. “No, it’s fine – just taking my time.” said I. I like that he asked, though. I liked it a lot.
Robert Lauriston is invested here in every way possible – you can’t help but see that – and Executive Chef Huw Thornton clearly runs a strong kitchen.
An interesting menu, forward-thinking food values, a well-thought out wine menu and a great space should add up to a win for Locanda da Eva – as long as there’s willingness to adapt to what their location may ultimately dictate.
I’d like to go back and try a few other things – if they stop charging for olive oil. That olive oil thing sticks in my craw.
UPDATE – 9/15/10: Robert Lauriston contacted me to let me know that olive oil would now be complimentary upon request, so my craw is officially clear.