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Oliveto Cafe, Sketch, North Berkeley Farmer's Market (visitor report)

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Oliveto Cafe, Sketch, North Berkeley Farmer's Market (visitor report)

Prabhakar Ragde | Aug 26, 2004 08:32 PM

We used to frequent Oliveto, from the time it opened, but at some
point it got a little austere, a little expensive, and a little cold
as far as service goes, so we stopped going. I still love reading Paul
Bertolli's prose, and sometimes I even use one of his recipes, though
with so many alterations he'd probably disclaim it.

Somehow we'd never been to the cafe downstairs, so we dropped in for a
light lunch. I shared a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and a salmon
salad sandwich with my daughter. Of course, these were no ordinary
ingredients. The salmon was wild king salmon, instead of celery there
was frisee, and there was a little pot of aioli on the side, which I
used sparingly, lest it blot out the salmon. Even then, the bread
threatened to overwhelm, and I took the top of the bun off. The menu
didn't list the provenance of the ham or cheese, but you could tell
with one bite that it was something out of the ordinary, and it was
grilled just right. There was a goat cheese and cherry tomato tart I
didn't get to try, and a pesto pizza with Yellow Finn potatoes I had a
bit of. I'm always ambivalent about pesto on pizza. You shouldn't cook
pesto, should you? But if you drizzle it on top afterwards, it's
really messy to eat and sometimes overwhelming. Anyway, everything was
quite tasty, the atmosphere was pleasant even though the place was
full by about ten minutes after twelve, and the kids want to go
back. I picked up a flyer for their Dinners For Tomatoes, which are on
this week, but since I am not a tomato, there is not much point in
thinking about this. Sandwiches were $7-8, the large pizza was $12.

My younger daughter was eyeing the caramel ice cream at an adjacent
table but I said I was not going to pay $5.00 for one scoop of ice
cream, so instead we drove to Sketch, on Fourth Street beside Bette's,
to pay $4.75. Actually, that got us two flavours, burnt caramel and
hazelnut praline. (Each kid ordered the same two flavours, go figure.)
We spent a chunk of July in Florence having gelato daily, sometimes
twice daily (once for dinner), so everyone was in hypercritical
mode. Still: this is the most authentic gelato I have had in the Bay
Area, maybe in North America (anyone want to fly me to La Casa Gelato
in Vancouver for an A/B comparison?). They nailed nocciola, which is
what they should call the hazelnut praline, dead on. The caramel was
less successful, I think, but still quite good. The gelato is
milk-based like most Italian gelati, not cream-based like Gelateria
Naia's (I like Naia's black sesame, but let's face it, it's premium
ice cream, not gelato). The two criticisms I would make are that their
display unit isn't cranked up high enough, so the gelato is really
soft (even by Italian standards) and melts very quickly, and that the
little wooden paddles are completely inadequate for eating it. They're
riding a fine edge; if they lower the temperature too much, they'll get
ice crystals, because of the lack of fat and emulsifiers. But firming it up
just a little would help. As for the paddles, ask for a taste of
something, then keep your little plastic spoon, and forget about the
paddles.

After that, the kids tried to drag me into Sur La Table to get a Musso
Lussino gelato machine, which if we were intending to visit Sketch
weekly and all indulge instead of having the adults make big eyes at
the kids until they shared, would pay for itself in about six
months. But I'm not schlepping a 40-pound unit through SFO and putting
it in the hands of your average baggage handler. So we drove off to
shop on Northside, and blundered into the first-ever North Berkeley
Farmer's Market on Shattuck at Vine. Alice Waters was walking around
chatting, and Tom Bates made a speech (what are his food credentials,
eh?) which I ignored to get some Frog Hollow peaches and nectarines
(to their aggressive sample guys I said, "No thanks, I'm allergic to
them," which is true, but a bit mean of me) and some Lucero organic
strawberries, to which I am not allergic and which make the several
varieties I bought at Berkeley Bowl in the last two weeks taste like
styrofoam.

Some reasonable prices (the strawberries were $6 for three pint
containers, and I saw nice heirloom tomatoes for $2/lb) but who knows
if those are opening specials or not? Anyway, Thursdays from 3 to
7pm. What kind of farmer's market hours are those? And what kind of
farmer's market offers vegan Mexican takeaway and shiatsu massage?
Savvy marketing (pun unintended) going on here. The market takes up
most of the convenient parking in the area, so be warned. --PR

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