Rockridge hasn’t historically wanted for pasta, or simple Italian food for that matter. The neighborhood has managed to support both 29-year-old Oliveto and three-year-old A16 Rockridge, even though the restaurants are located within a few blocks of each other. Recently, neither restaurant has offered much in the way of innovation, but if you were looking for a solid plate of pasta, it was easily in reach.
So when Belotti Ristorante e Bottega announced its arrival to the neighborhood early this year, it seemed superfluous. Did we really need another Italian restaurant on this stretch of College Avenue?
Yes. Yes, we did.
Belotti serves the best pasta I’ve ever had. (This is not an exaggeration, or a lazy food writer fall-back, but the simple truth.) Supple, tender and vibrant with an abundance of egg yolks — chef/owner Michele Belotti uses about twice as many yolks as typical recipes for pasta dough, which he makes by hand each day — it is a wondrous vehicle for the six sauces and fillings on the menu.
But Belotti Ristorante is more than just its pasta menu, and it may just be the best new East Bay restaurant of 2016. The restaurant is unequivocally Italian — there are very few nods to California localism on the menu and the vast majority of the restaurant’s wines are Italian — and it is all the better for it. This singular focus on tradition makes for a more transportive dining experience and regional specialties, like Belotti’s casoncelli, shine.
Those small pillows of pasta ($15.50) stuffed with a rich concoction of beef, prosciutto and pork shoulder come courtesy of Belotti’s mother and are unlike anything found at the restaurant’s neighbors. The shape itself — traditional in the area of Lombardy in which Belotti grew up — is a new one for me. Like a small raviolo with wings, it clings to the sage and brown butter sauce with ease, and the hearty meat filling is punctuated with small bits of smoke from small cubes of salty pancetta tossed in the sauce. Perfection.
Lombard cuisine is not shy with its use of animal products — beef, pork, butter and lard are all common ingredients — and they make frequent appearance on Belotti’s short menu. Take its exceptional battuta, beef tartare made with dry-aged ribeye, sliced into sizable pieces and topped, painting-like, with Parmesan cream, truffle juice spherified into “caviar,” a quail egg yolk and teensy tiny arugula greens ($15). It’s the only dish on the menu that makes clear use of more modernist cooking techniques, but keeps its flavor firmly planted in tradition. Each topping somehow makes the beef taste all the more, well, beefier — none of it is a distraction.
Another dish making great use of beef is the agnolotti di Lidia, another stuffed pasta from the region of Piedmont, where Belotti worked before moving to the United States ($13.50). Like the casoncelli, the agnolotti are filled with several meats — here, beef shank, flat iron, pork loin and sausage — plus escarole and spinach. The rectangular filled pasta are folded over a thin, flat piece of dough, forming a pocket ready-made to capture a maximum of Belotti’s intoxicating sauce of beef reduction and some kind of magic.
Pastas of the non-filled type also shine, and the simpler the sauce, the better. My favorite is the spaghetti, hand-made, of course, and tossed in a bright San Marzano tomato sauce. A generous pile of torn burrata sits on top with basil and excellent Taggiasca olive oil ($14.50). The spaghetti is great not only because of the quality of the ingredients, but also because it shows restraint — there is just enough sauce, just enough cheese, just enough olive oil. (It’s even good eaten cold out of the fridge the next day — just saying.)
Slightly less memorable, but still far better than average, is the tagliatelle tossed in a wild boar sugo with Pecorino cheese and plenty of black pepper ($16.50). A seasonal special earlier this spring of tagliolini (hand-cut thin tajarin pasta tossed with porcini, tomatoes, peaches and a very generous pat of butter) was also enjoyable — sweet and earthy at the same time ($16.50).
My favorite way to eat at Belotti Ristorante is to start with a shared salad, like the lovely living butter lettuce salad, lightly dressed with a lemon dressing, Granda Padano cheese and roasted pine nuts ($8.50). I then dig into a pasta as a main dish. Servings look small, but each is rich enough to satisfy a moderately hungry eater.
Should you care to make the meal a full three-course affair, Belotti Ristorante offers a few main dishes. I’ve only had the mailalino, slow-cooked suckling pig from Stone Valley Farm served with its crackling crisp skin on, shellacked in a gelatin-rich balsamic sauce ($28.50). Its bed of baby spinach and green onion is fine, but no match for the moist, almost-but-not-quite too salty pork.
Also on the menu for a future visit are the brasato, a braised flat iron steak served on polenta with mushrooms ($27.50), and the pesce, Chilean sea bass with vegetables and lime ($30).
Dessert is even simpler. So simple, in fact, that Belotti Ristorante does not even print out a menu. There’s panna cotta topped with seasonal berries and there’s tiramisu (both $8) — that’s it. Neither dessert is pushing any boundaries, but they’re perfectly executed. Coffee fans should not skip the tiramisu, rich in both masacarpone and espresso, and generously portioned in a clear tall glass. The panna cotta is a far more subtle dessert that lets the gentle sweetness of the cream shine through.
Above all of this, perhaps the best part of Belotti Ristorante is its affordability. It’s certainly not the cheapest restaurant on College, but with all pastas sitting pretty in the $13 to $22 range, dinner can be a decadent night out without the sticker shock of some its neighbors. Sure, you can go all out with a multi-course dinner and a bottle of wine, and you’ll hit at least $50 per person. You’ll also be very, very full. On the other hand, my favorite salad (split two ways) and an order of casoncelli is less than $25. That I could eat once a week.