This is a story about a little neighborhood restaurant opened in 1994 — a shared vision between two partners in work and life, who built an acclaimed destination dining space serving up fresh, homey food with complex flavors and nods to Italian, French, and Californian cuisine.
And it’s the story of how this culinary couple followed the success of their first eatery by opening an authentic Tuscan trattoria nearby three years ago. That place proved popular with critics and customers too.
This is also the story of the enduring power of friendship and love. Friendship, respect, trust, admiration, and love in the face of the demise of a long-term marriage, where two people who see the essential good in each other decide it’s a bad idea to stay together. And so they go their separate ways personally but manage, despite the initial challenges of seeing the ex every single day, to keep working together as partners in a labor of love.
Six years post-separation, and chef Wendy Brucker and general manager Roscoe Skipper, who run the restaurants Rivoli and Corso, are the proverbial poster pair for people whose commitment to each other remains solid in the face of the end of their marriage. Some regulars don’t even know the two aren’t an item anymore; while it’s no secret, it’s not like the restaurateurs go out of their way to tell diners.
The couple met in the early days of their careers, when she was a line cook at Square One in San Francisco and he worked as a waiter. This year, both their restaurants made San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer’s Top 100 list. (The third year in a row for Corso Trattoria, where chef Rodrigo da Silva runs the day-to-day operations. Rivoli’s been a regular on the list since 1996).
At a table overlooking the lush garden at Rivoli, Brucker, 52, who grew up in Berkeley and lives, with her boyfriend, in the home she and Skipper still own together near the restaurant, talked about working with the man she calls her best friend. Not to be outdone, Skipper, 53, who lives in Oakland, quoted poet Thomas Gunn to describe his feelings for Brucker.
How do you do it?
Skipper: We need each other. I couldn’t do what I do here without Wendy, she feels the same way, and we wouldn’t want to keep doing this without the other.
Brucker: He’s the biggest fan of what I do with food and he’s the best general manager I’ve ever worked with. I don’t want to work with anyone else. And I still laugh at his jokes.
How would you describe your restaurants?
Skipper: Rivoli is not a concept restaurant, it’s an expression of who we are. I think of it as Gary Danko on a budget. Anyone who has been to Italy knows there is no such thing as Italian food, it’s regional cuisine, and that’s what we’re doing with Corso, bringing a Florentine eating experience to Berkeley.
Brucker: Of course I want people to enjoy our food and service but I also want them leaving our restaurants feeling better than when they came in. The world out there is often hard, we strive to provide a soft shoulder.
Does the Chronicle‘s Top 100 List carry the same weight in the age of Yelp and citizen food reviews?
Skipper: It used to be you’d see an uptick in diners after the list came out, that doesn’t happen any more. But Michael Bauer’s opinion of what a quality restaurant is still matters.
What have you learned from experience that might be instructive for a new generation of restauranteurs?
Brucker: There’s something to be said for just putting in the work. We did it the hard way: our own money, long hours, and a commitment to quality, integrity and just serving up really good food, which is why we’ve lasted as long as we have. I also worked for others and learned from others for about 15 years. That’s important. There’s a lot of technique that goes onto the plate at Rivoli and Corso, even stuff I learned at culinary school comes back to me.
What’s missing in the Berkeley dining scene?
Skipper: Anchor businesses like Pixar that can support high-end restaurants like ours. In San Francisco, people are spending other people’s money; when they go out for a meal they’re often on an expense account. In Berkeley, people are paying out of their own pocket.
Where do you like to eat out around town?
Brucker: I don’t eat out much. I do like the fried chicken and burgers at 900 Grayson. It’s simple food but it’s good quality and well done.
Skipper: I eat out a lot, mostly in San Francisco and Oakland. I like Great China in downtown Berkeley. The Peking duck is good, the Chinese banquet is something; there’s a reason there’s a line out the door.
Skipper: A French restaurant.
Brucker: A vacation in France. You know what I’d love to do? I’d love to open a tiny place, maybe eight tables, I’d cook and Roscoe would work the floor and it would just be us, like it was 30 years ago, without all the frou-frou stuff. There aren’t many people our age still doing the work, like breaking down chickens and cleaning out the walk-in. But we are, and we’ll probably do this for 10-15 more years, if our bodies allow us. It’s what we do.