Monday, September 3, 2007

Table For Two

Several nights ago, my fiance and I took a trip to Oakland to celebrate the day of her birth. A couple of weeks prior, we had read in the Chronicle's Food section about a restaurant that would be having its annual Tomato Dinners on that very same day, so we quickly made reservations and began getting excited about eating a dinner inspired completely by tomatoes. Being the height of tomato season, this promised to be quite an amazing and delightful meal. Each year, Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant in Oakland holds their Tomato Dinners, three days of feasting on a menu of brilliantly inspired dishes each with tomatoes as a main ingredient. And yes, that includes the deserts.

Oliveto, a wonderful Italian cafe & restaurant on College Avenue in Oakland, has two dining areas complete with their own menus. The cafe, located downstairs, serves lighter fare consisting of salads, pizzas and pastas for a casual lunch or dinner, and the menu changes daily to go with what is in season. The upstairs restaurant, where the tomato dinners are held, is the more formal fine dining room that serves both lunch and dinner. The upstairs restaurant is a warm and modern space serving a full seasonal menu that also changes daily.

On any normal day, Oliveto's restaurant serves a delicious array of finely conceived dishes inspired by traditional Italian cuisine. To see Oliveto's full menus, click here. On this day, however, we were treated to a fantastic menu of tomato-laden dishes. For starters, I had the dry-farmed "early girl" and "flamme" tomatoes with burrata di bufala, and my lovely fiance had a green olive crostone with pancetta, green "brandywine" tomatoes, and wild fennel. My appetizer, basically tomatoes with fresh mozzerella cheese and olive oil, was anything but basic. The flavor of the ripe tomatoes paired with the amazingly fresh cheese was so flavorful that I could have eaten a few plates of it for my entire meal and been satisfied. The cheese just melted in my mouth and the flavors of the tomatoes were just so brilliantly fresh. I truly didn't want the dish to end. The crostone was equally as delicious, with the sweet green tomato mixing with the salty pancetta on the crunchy bread making an incredibly flavorful dish.

We shared a pasta dish, Tomato penne all colatura di alici, garlic, hot pepper, and tomato leaf sauce, a wonderfully flavorful pasta with the tomatoes actually infused into the pasta itself. The entrees' again did not fail to delight us. My fiance got the Grilled beefsteak tomatoes wrapped in pancetta, Paola's potatoes, Anchovy and Herb Sauce while I ventured out of my comfort zone a bit and tried the Charcoal-grilled Sika venison with roasted plum tomatoes and fresh shelling beans. The venison was cooked perfectly, just pink enough in the middle and bursting with flavor. It sat in a tangy sauce with the roasted tomatoes and beans that really brought the dish together but the venison was so moist and so tender that it could have been sitting in dishwater and I would have loved it.

And finally, dessert. Yes, I realize that the idea of a tomato-infused dessert might sound a little off at first, but bear with me. It takes a certain sense of adventure, but trust me, these guys know what they are doing. We ordered the Limoncello Baba with "sungold" tomato compote, basically a limoncello-soaked cake topped with a thick tomato sauce. The flavors together were wonderful. The cake was very tart, but the tartness was off-set by the warm sweetness of the tomato compote. We were tempted to order a couple of desserts, but couldn't seem to find the room in our stuffed bellies for any more.

We both loved our meals at the Tomato Dinners at Oliveto. We will make it a point to go back and try their regular menu as soon as humanly possible. Everything at the restaurant was so wonderfully executed; from the helpful and friendly staff to the brilliantly executed dishes. I would recommend Oliveto to anyone looking for a fancy yet completely un-pretentious meal for any occasion, any time.