Restaurants & Bars 4

Our dinner at Corso

santoku45 | Jun 22, 2008 09:54 AM

My wife and I went to Corso for dinner on a warm Berkeley evening, one week after the restaurant opened. We're long-time patrons of Rivoli, and have been looking forward to Corso ever since the Rivoli team announced they would open a trattoria-like place in the ex-Misto spot. Our hopes were for a North Berkeley Italian place that could, on its own merits, rival Dopo or Pizzaiolo in terms of tasty food and dining experience.

Our impression from our first visit is that Corso might take a while to find its identity, "personality" and cuisine. We're not sure what it really wants to be. To us, it seemed rather laid back where we thought it might be bold and assertive. At this (very) early juncture, nothing stood out in the food, or in the dining experience. In general, we thought the food we had was somewhat under-seasoned. Where we hoped for forward flavors and bursts of tastes we found well-executed but fairly ho-hum dishes. Nothing we ate was anything we could really rave about. (We've had much tastier food, consistently, at Rivoli, Pizzaiolo and Dopo.)

Ambiance: as others have noted, the place gets noisy in a hurry. We arrived at 5:45 and by 6:15 we could barely hear each other at our table. The piped in music didn't make conversation any easier, but it did seem to cease (thankfully) around 7 pm. That's also when the overhead fans wound up to higher rpm's, sending down a refreshing breeze. Corso is small and loud, but not lively (like, say, Wood Tavern is lively). It might need a band of mirrored glass on the walls to add some dimensionality to the space, which (to me) felt narrow, not well integrated, and slightly cramped. But that can come in time, along with some sort of decibel mitigation.

On being seated they offer you a stylish carafe of tap water and keep it filled during your meal. The wait staff asks if you want bread; they don't deliver it automatically. Stunningly, though, our bread tasted old, as if it had been cut in the morning and had sat around all day. We each took one bite and left the rest on the bread plate.

We ordered Calamari fritti to start, followed by Tagliatelle al sugo, Bollito de manzo (braised beef), with sides of Fagioli all'uccelletto (corona and Pope's beans) and Polenta al forno con mascarpone (baked polenta with mascarpone cheese.)

The calamari was less than expected. The batter on the squid was nicely crunchy, but kept falling off, so every time you picked up a piece with your fork parts of it would fall back to the platter, leaving a sea of crumbs. The yellow aioli was not acidic enough for our taste. It was timid and recessive when it should have been assertive, since the squid themselves, while wonderfully fresh, didn't seem very spiced. The dish also comes with battered and deep fried sweet onions, which my wife preferred to the calamari. They're on the small side, and well-executed. As a bonus there were a few pieces of thinly sliced deep-fried lemon.

The tagliatelle was served in a huge bowl about 1/3 the size of the table top. The serving itself occupied just the center of the bowl. My wife liked it, but I found it short on character. It seemed as if it were trying to be "well prepared" rather then expressive of a culinary truth. It sure seemed lonely in the middle of that huge bowl.

My braised beef was nicely done, but the spirit seemed braised out of it. It seemed rather texture-less and bland to me, and to my wife. It might have tasted better had there been a starch and a vegetable on the same plate, adding visual and taste counterpoints. As it was, the beef was isolated on a large oval platter, with much more plate then portion. Maybe this visual isolation had an effect on how I tasted the dish. I dunno. But it sure seemed like a one-dimensional dish that I would probably not order again. (About eight years ago I had a fantastic braised beef shank at Oliveto that I can still taste today; the Corso version seemed lame by comparison.)

The beans were delicious. We had never had them before and enjoyed every bite. The baked polenta with mascarpone was rich and and creamy--really too rich for us.

At the end of the meal we were too full for dessert and settled for a caffe latte and espresso. Wait service was fine throughout.

We'll return to Corso in a month or so. At this point it seems to me that they are still working on their culinary identity. For that the kitchen will have to develop its own character, hopefully something bolder and more declarative that what we experienced on our first, early visit.

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