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Italian simply fine at A16 and Prima in the East Bay of SF

This year I’ve had great meals from Mazatlan to Marsala, Hong Kong to Helsinki. Yes, I’ve been to Italy, but wonderful pasta memories linger from meals 40 minutes away at two restaurants a dozen miles apart in the East Bay of San Francisco.

Covering Italy from the Alps to the southern shores of the country’s boot, Prima in Walnut Creek and A16 in Oakland are co-owned by two acclaimed Italian wine experts, John Rittmaster and Shelley Lindgren respectively. Their restaurants manifest authentic, regional Italian food and wine in small and large ways.


Prima for the North

Though the city of Walnut Creek has seen hundreds of restaurant open and then close in the past 35 years, Prima has sustained its reputation for high-caliber, Northern Italian cuisine. Rittmaster is wine director; business partner and executive chef Peter Chastain, who has cooked in the U.S., Europe and Japan, leads the kitchen. Though Rittmaster worked as Pacific Rim director for Robert Mondavi and Opus One wines in Tokyo twenty years ago, his bias is northern Italy wines. His vinous passion has spilled next door into their wine store Primi Vini.

What we aim for, said Rittmaster, is Italian sensibility and hospitality.  “We may not ask what you want, but ‘How hungry are you?’ We don’t rush you out in 45 minutes.  Dine for as long as you like at the table.” As in Italy, Rittmaster likes to offer an aperitivo or glass of prosecco when guests are seated. An amuse bouche quickly appears. In our case, my friend and I eagerly polished off mini-bagna càuda. The bread, lightly salted “pane grigio” served warm, is a big hint this is real Italian.


The first item on the Prima menu is individually priced salume, a great Northern tradition. Having visited Trieste, I’m a fan of the proffered prosciutto di San Daniele. There’s also speck from Alto Adige and finocchiona, fennel and pepper-flavored pork salume. I could have made a meal of cured meats. But moving on, we dug into the chunks of parmigiano reggiano and grilled romaine hearts with shaved pecorino on the antipasti platter.


You know you’re on a taste tour of Northern Italy when you see stuffed pasta on the menu. The agnoletti with tallegio-brown butter and sage are a classic, but we chose tortelli. These circles of pasta folded over crunchy, local English peas, smooth mascarpone and earthy Chiodini mushrooms and sage were a delicious study in textural contrast.


The bistecca alla Fiorentina for two with arugula, lemon, parmigiano and roasted potatoes is a never-take-off-the-menu item. My friend and I sipped a fulsome Nebbiolo from Cordero di Montezemolo while we munched through Dutch Valley veal scaloppini with wild mushrooms and chicken roasted in the wood oven.


With an Italian-born pastry chef, Prima is known for chocolate bondino, but we tucked into panna cotta with Italian liqueur Meletti Anisette and dried fruits and cheeses such as Val d’Aosta fontina from Piemonte.


Heading south to A16

Lindgren’s favorite route in Italy is on the A16, the highway from Naples to Canosa, Puglia. In 2004 she opened the first A16 in San Francisco; the cookbook, “A16, Food and Wine” (Ten Speed Press) arrived in 2008. The second A16 opened with the spirit and flavors of Campania and Puglia in 2012 in the gourmet neighborhood of Rockridge in Oakland.


On my recent trip to Puglia, I brought back a packet of taralli, the ring-shaped, Pugliese cracker, for a friend. When I brought him to A16, he tasted the house version of taralli placed on the table and said, “Now these taralli are fresh and magnificent—the perfect accompaniment to oysters.”


As would be evident throughout the meal, Chef Rocky Maselli showcases seafood as Southern Italians do. Maselli has familial roots in Puglia, and he demonstrates his affinity for the cuisine through selection of ingredients and techniques.


Maselli make his own ricotta salata or cacioricotta to finish salads and pasta by salting and drying fresh ricotta. He also prepares what he calls “Calabrian ketchup,” a deliciously authentic flavoring agent. Here’s Maselli’s recipe: Process the imported, salted, small red chilis from Calabria packed in oil. Remove the stems and process into a paste. Cover in olive oil and simmer for three to four hours.”


Why go through this effort? “The cooking of the chili rounds and softens the spice of the pepper and intensifies the sweetness,” said Maselli. Calabrian ketchup flavors pasta sauces and acts as a condiment for drizzled on egg dishes, pizza and as a soup garnish.” The chef had captured the flavors I had traveled to Puglia to find.


Back to dinner. When asked about the menu, Maselli immediately pointed to the first section: “Crudo.” My friend could have eaten a dozen of the oysters from Washington and nearby Marin County, but he knew the geoduck clam with mandolined radish and a duo of mini-arancini rice balls were on their way.


But wait. When I sat down, I had asked for the burrata, the Pugliese cheese invented as a way to use up fresh mozzarella leftovers which were stuffed with cream inside a mozzarella skin. The cheese arrived festooned with roasted peppers, capers, Italian EVO and sea salt, and it was soon gone.


Fortunately neither of us had eaten much lunch, so we noshed on a noce pizza with Meyer lemon, ricotta and walnuts before a small plate of troccoli, thick spaghetti with chanterelles and white truffles.

The starring item on the “Secondo” course was braised rabbit with red wine and wild mushrooms. The whole roasted trout was a close runner up. Already lined up for the next visit: lamb meatballs with cranberry beans and butternut squash ragu.


Dessert was vanilla rice pudding dressed up in Southern Italian flavors: budino di riso with pomegranate, persimmon and pistachio.


What about the wines recommended by Italian wine specialist Lindgren? Each selection was memorable, but the versatile Cantele Amativo, Salento, Guaguano, Lecce, 2010, a Negroamaro-Primitivo blend from Puglia, paired with many of the dishes.


As Rittmaster at Prima said, “We’re not the ‘Ross Dress for Less’ restaurant. We’re your bespoke tailor.” A few weeks after our Prima visit, my friend said, “It was such an Italian experience. I can’t believe we spent three hours at dinner.”

That’s what happens when you have a custom Italian meal and enjoy every moment. I may travel abroad again in 2014, but I know that the Italian ethos is a short drive away.


A16 Geoduck clam crudo with radish and lemon
Photo credits: Deborah Grossman


Prima owner John Rittmaster in his Primi Vini wine shop


Photo Credit: Deborah Grossman











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