First Look: Rustic Italian meets California farm-to-table at Donato & Co. in Berkeley

A refurbished Vespa sits aloft over the dining area at Donato & Co in Berkeley. Photo: Benjamin Seto

When The Advocate — the high-profile restaurant from the team behind the successful Comal — closed in 2016 after just one year in business, it left a large hole in the dining scene in Berkeley’s quaint Elmwood neighborhood.

Last October, Chef Donato Scotti filled the void and the large restaurant space on Ashby Avenue with Donato & Co., the latest in his string of restaurants that includes Redwood City’s Donato Enoteca and CRU, and up until recently, Desco in Old Oakland.

Donato & Co. is a strictly Italian affair, with the requisite farm-to-table California slant. Scotti brought on Italian chef Gianluca Guglielmi to head the kitchen. Guglielmi has worked at several Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy and was an executive with the Bay Area’s Italian importer and grocer, A.G. Ferrari Foods.

Donato & Co. retains much of the look and feel of The Advocate, including the large black-and-white photographic murals (Italian countryside scenes replace the images of the Berkeley campus) and the Meyer Sound system that muffles the chatter noise so you’re able to hear your dining partners. The open kitchen now emphasizes a wood-fire cooking area where most of the meats are prepared, and a pop of Italy is prominently on display with a refurbished Vespa overlooking the dining area.

The Milk & Honey cocktail. Photo: Benjamin Seto

The large bar with a communal table is also still there, and Donato’s bar program includes a selection of specialty cocktails. When I visited for dinner, I tried a nicely balanced drink called the Milk & Honey ($11), made with Old Forester bourbon, lemon, white wine reduction and a layer of egg white foam.

The menu isn’t your typical Italian restaurant format with appetizers, and first and second courses. Instead, the limited menu is broken into four sections: “Farm & Fields” (mostly salads), “Salt & Water” (cured items and mini pizzas called “pizzelle”), “Pasta & Co.” (obviously, all the pasta dishes) and “Iron & Fire” (items coming from the open-fire kitchen and rotisserie).

Il Maiale for brunch at Donato & Co. comes with house made pork sausage, eggs and grilled polenta. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Donato also recently started weekend brunch service, for which I dropped in to check out the freshly made Italian-style pastries and bread by Chef Guglielmi. (Full disclosure: I was invited as a guest of the house to check out Donato’s brunch menu, but I paid my own way when I returned for dinner.)

What I appreciate about the dinner menu is that you can order many of the items at half orders, letting you try more of a variety of dishes. For example, a full order of the pizzelle — mini pizzas the size of the traditional Italian waffle cookie — gets you three, while a half order means you choose just one. The broccoli and pecorino pizzelle I tried was tasty but the dough is more bread-like and less like the thin-crust pizza found around town.

A salad made with red frilly greens, caramelized walnuts and crispy uovo. Photo: Benjamin Seto

One of the more often-recommended dishes is the salad of local red frilly greens and caramelized walnuts, which serve as a nest for the crispy uovo, which means egg in Italian. The preparation is often used to create a ravioli with a soft-boiled yolk inside, but for this salad, a full egg is encased in breadcrumbs, then deep-fried. It’s an impressive presentation, but the night I tried it the yolk in my uovo was almost hard-boiled — leaving very little “sauce” to spread around the salad.

Pappardelle with Liberty duck ragu. Photo: Benjamin Seto

The freshly made pasta is cooked perfectly, like the pappardelle with Liberty duck ragu cooked in Sangiovese wine, thyme and Grana Padano ($9 half/$17 full). And the signature dish is the Il Maiale ($9/$21), a plate of porky goodness served three ways:
house-made pork sausage, ribs and crispy pork belly with sides of borlotti beans and wilted Savoy cabbage. This dish is also on the brunch menu, serving up just the sausage with an added fried egg.

Frico cake with poached eggs and salsa bernese. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Speaking of brunch, one dish that screams breakfast is the frico cake ($10), which is a crispy nest made of potato and cheese that carries a poached egg with salsa bernese. Perfect comfort food, especially with the egg cooked at the right degree (I wished my uovo was more like this) and the contrasting texture from the crispy potatoes.

Crema cotta offers at sweet ending to a meal at Donato & Co. Photo: Benjamin Seto

Dessert includes a few items with Italian influences. The crema cotta ($8) is made with a creme caramel infused with a lovely rosemary essence. The texture is thick like a creme brûlée but smooth like a panna cotta.

In some ways, Donato & Co. picks up where The Advocate left off, entertaining local families looking for a large, handsome space for a night out. The California sensibilities still hold true, while the Italian touches feel authentic and opens one’s eyes to regional Italian cooking.

Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.