By Diana Arbas
No need to trek to North Beach to enjoy music, vino and Venetian-style nibbles for a couple of carefree hours. Berkeley’s own Cioccolata Di Vino, on Shattuck in the Gourmet Ghetto, now serves up live local jazz and cicchetti snacks on weekend afternoons.
Rebecca Bernstein, Cioccolata Di Vino’s executive chef and co-owner, has always wanted to create a place for people to come relax and enjoy the experience. “In my very initial business plan,” she said, “I wrote that I wanted people to feel like they were in their own living room, except they could order food and a glass of wine.”
Cioccolata Di Vino’s living room experience has only gotten richer. Cicchetti, or bite-sized Italian snacks, debuted Saturday afternoon, ranging from baccala mantecato (whipped salt cod served on crostini) to fried stuffed olives with herb ricotta. And the delizioso offerings came paired with the new summer jazz series, kicked off by JetBlacq, an Oakland-based group that prides itself on being the show — not background music.
Feet tapped and fingers snapped all around as JetBlacq vocalist Rebecca Faiola crooned, “An older man is like an elegant wine,” with playful sultriness to an older male guest. Other restaurant guests — many of whom seemed to be JetBlacq followers and friends — laughed and cheered when Faiola strutted toward the man’s table while singing and put her arm around him.
Cioccolata Di Vino served about 30 customers during that inaugural 3 to 5 p.m. jazz slot. The already cozy space felt cozier still as closely arranged tables buzzed with light conversation and laughter. What must be a romantic spot at night felt like a sunny cafe filled with good friends and neighbors that afternoon — especially when Faiola’s husband and fellow JetBlacq vocalist Frank sang the popular “Volare” and guests joined in, swaying in their seats and smiling brightly.
Bernstein said she worked hard to stay true to her original concept of a warm experience and human connection. During build out and construction a few years ago — Cioccolata Di Vino opened in January 2009 — Bernstein felt pressure from contractors and her technologically savvy sister to put in wireless internet and more outlets.
“I kind of dug my heels in and said I absolutely don’t want outlets around the restaurant because I don’t want people to come in here, get on their computers and zone out. I want people to have conversation, relax, communicate with one another and interact,” Bernstein said. “That epitomizes what I was trying to create and how much I had to work to stay focused on that.”
Since its opening, Cioccolata Di Vino’s seen a lot of first dates. “I actually have a couple coming in next week for their first anniversary because they’ve had their first date here,” Bernstein said. “And we have another couple who had their first date here, their first anniversary here and are having their wedding reception here in September. So that kind of thing is awesome.”
Bernstein does caution that her restaurant and wine bar are a little more limited than others. She has a small kitchen and small staff, and all the food is made from scratch.
“Everything’s not going to come out really fast,” Bernstein said. “We can’t cater to the customer who wants to order a bunch of food really quickly, have it served to them right away and get out.”
Still, Bernstein is happy that Cioccolata Di Vino serves food that is fresh and made with care. Ingredients aren’t prepared in advance. “The mushrooms for the salad aren’t sitting there with raw edges getting kind of icky. Somebody orders a salad, and we cut up the mushrooms and put everything together and the salad goes out,” she said.
Bernstein is often the only one in the kitchen making that salad, too.
“Looking around and seeing people enjoy themselves, hearing people laugh and have a good time in a space that I created and enjoying food that I created — I love. I love that.”
Next up in the Summer Weekend Afternoon Jazz Series is the Bruce Barrett Quartet on July 9 followed by Laura Klein and Ted Wolff on July 10. The music is from 3-5 p.m. on both days.
Venetian-style cicchetti snacks are $4 each or 3 for $10.
Cioccolata di Vino is at 1801 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley. For more information, visit Cioccolata di Vino’s website.
Diana Arbas studies creative writing and journalism at Mills College. She is also the assistant news editor of The Campanil, the college’s student news organization. She is currently interning at Berkeleyside.