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Restaurants & Bars 8

Trip report -- Dopo vs Pizzaiolo

Prabhakar Ragde | Aug 26, 200512:54 AM

Dopo -- I thought we should do a head-to-head comparison with
Pizzaiolo, so we returned for the first time since shortly after they
opened. The small knots of anxious diners waiting before the 5:30
opening formed themselves into a vague line by common consent, but
didn't fill the place when they started seating. Our party of five
overflowed a table for four; a larger party would just have to be
split up. We ordered the antipasti for four ($29), consisting of all
three selections (caponata with mozzarella di bufala, grilled tuna
with olives, and shellfish salad with cherry tomatoes and shaved
fennel). What you get at Dopo are small servings of
intensely-flavoured food, and wine in tumblers (I had two excellent
glasses, a Rosso di Montalcino and a seven-year-old Chianti). Their
pizza avoids the crackerlike Roman style, the thick chewy Neapolitan
style, and the limp barely-cooked California style; the crust is crisp
yet yielding, the sauce is generous but doesn't make the crust soggy,
and the toppings are excellent (prosciutto di parma and gypsy peppers
in this instance, $14). We ordered individual pastas; tagliatelle with
duck ragu ($14) was quite good, but the standout was lasagna, a
portion that looked skimpy at first sight but which was bursting with
flavour. Desserts were modest, but both the flourless chocolate cake
and figs poached in red wine ($7) continued the high standards. A
near-perfect meal.

Pizzaiolo -- I'm always sad when a neighbourhood hardware store goes
away. I even bought some halogen bulbs at this one once. They had the
sense to keep the old 3-D sign sticking out over the sidewalk. In
fact, you pretty much have to know the restaurant is here; there's a
little discreet framed sign hanging on an interior pillar and some
Scrabble tiles on the window ledge spelling out you-know-what. We were
early and there was no line at all, so we got to walk around Temescal
a bit. Nice concentration of food destinations. When we returned, we
bargained our way to the table at the back wall which can hold eight,
because I knew the sun would come in through the all-glass front and
blind at least half of us. Our server seemed like a nice young man,
but a bit of a ditz; he took our order, didn't ask about wine, and
then said, "Shall I course that for you?" After reading the complaints
here, I wasn't about to go for that. "No, just bring it whenever it's
ready." I debated ordering a full bottle of wine to nurse through the
lengthy wait I had prepared everyone for, but when all the food came
at once about ten minutes later, I just ordered a glass of Zin, which
was decent, but cost more than I used to pay for a whole bottle of the
stuff. No, not all the food came at once. A dish of greens came which
we hadn't ordered, and we sent it back. The server came over. "When
you said 'rapini', you meant the pizza?" Yes, I did, and I indicated
that by adding the word 'pizza' after it. Besides, the greens on the
menu were escarole. Nice try. So the rapini pizza came a little later,
which was a blessing, really.

Okay, the food. Antipasti misti ($17) consisted of things like
arancini with a nice saffrony taste; slices of mozzarella di bufala,
air-cured sausage, and mortadella; marinated anchovies; stuffed gypsy
peppers; some little pickled peppers that were way too salty and hot
without anything to clear the palate of them afterwards; grilled
eggplant layered with mozzarella and basil; a meatball of some sort;
fried polenta with peppers inside, which worked really well; and lots
of little capers sprinkled about that proved next to impossible to
pick up. Overall it was nice, but not a revelation. Garganelli with
breadcrumbs ($14) did not quite work; the texture
contrast was nice, but there wasn't enough flavour. Gnocchi with pork
ragu should have been called gnocchoni; they were the size of golf
balls, and weren't really gnocchi, lacking the slight elasticity and
lightness of really good exemplars. They were more like large blobs of
fine polenta. The ragu was fine, if not as intense as the best I've had.

I wasn't crazy about the pizzas. Ruccola, speck, and grana ($14; I
wonder how many people decided to add "rocket" to it, which is a $3
option on the menu) came without tomato sauce, which is just fine, but
the crust had too much of that California softness to it. You couldn't
have picked up a piece without the tip curling down. The rapini, red
onion, and homemade sausage (again, no tomato sauce) had a better
crust, still not ideal, and the steamed rapini was in huge clots, with
the sausage bits the size of meatballs, requiring a fair amount of
planning of each forkful to avoid imbalance.

That was a lot of food for five people, and we ordered two desserts to
share. Fig and raspberry tart ($8) had a good flavour, but was too
rustic. Way too rustic: the topping had no structural integrity,
acting more like a thick sauce, and the crust was uneven and a bit too
unyielding. The gelato, which we watched the server scoop out of what
appeared to be a vintage Kelvinator freezer, wasn't smooth enough; I
could feel ice crystals on my tongue. Bocanegra with white chocolate
whipping cream ($8) was a little pot of what tasted like half-cooked
brownies, and oozed liquid at the bottom. Even our resident chocolate
fiend couldn't finish it.

We ordered two shots of espresso, which I never do at night, but this
was my only chance to taste Bluebottle espresso from a recommended
barista. I watched the bartender prepare it, and started timing to see
how long to the second it would wait before it got to us. But our
server noticed me craning my head, followed my gaze, dashed over and
got the cups. So, okay, he was a ditz, but he gets points for
that. The shot was all right, not enough crema, medium-bodied, a bit
thin on the tongue, but with an aftertaste that just built and built
afterwards, which surprised me. I wouldn't go out of my way to have
another, but I'd have one if the opportunity presented itself.

I would say that Dopo wins this round, hands down. But it's perhaps an
unfair comparison; they've had about six times as long to get the bugs
out, and Oliveto is probably more focussed training for this type of
food than Chez Panisse. Pizzaiolo has a nice room (it would be nicer
if they'd put louvers on the front window), loads more space (I don't
think it filled up until 6:30, when we were mostly done), and a
lot of potential. There were a disconcerting number of people hanging
around the edge of the kitchen, or having kitchen staff come over to
their table to chat. The servers all have the same agent, and the
kitchen announces orders in a normal speaking voice, which isn't going
to work with people looking this self-absorbed, or when the room gets
really full and noisy. Hint: running a place for your friends doesn't work
in the long term. I'll be back, but I don't think success (as I
define it, not as they define it) is assured for this place.

One more thing: the menu typesetters at both restaurants need to take
a crash course in Italian grammar, particularly with respect to gender
and forming plurals. And no, a room in a public place with a toilet and
sink but no tub or shower is not called "Bagno". Ask for that in a
restaurant in Italy and they will look at you like you're insane. --PR

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