“We need authentic Italian street food in the Bay Area,” said Daniele Carsano, co-owner of 54 Mint Forno Italiano in Walnut Creek, and the soon-to-be-open Casa Barotti on College Avenue in Berkeley.
Looking for a way to bring the casual Italian eating style to the Bay Area, Carsano — a native of Turin — got to talking with his two childhood friends, who are both restaurant owners in Italy. Together they hatched a plan to open a business that highlights the very best flavors of his home country coupled with an engaged sense of community for a dining experience that’s more like a gathering place meant for friends to catch up over great food.
“It’s just like if you were in those tiny places in Florence or Rome,” Carsano said.
And tiny it is. With roughly 1,200 square feet to its name, and located in the space previously occupied by Extreme Pizza, Casa Barotti will be grab-and-go during the day with seating available along counters, as well as a single communal table towards the back.
The restaurant will maximize every last inch by utilizing the space’s pre-existing open concept, allowing diners a glimpse into the kitchen. Outside of the prep area and Moretti Forni oven, however, the showstopper will be the display counter which will feature pizza al taglio (aka pizza by the slice), fresh-baked focaccia and panzerotti (fried mini calzones). There will even be farinata — a heavenly, unleavened chickpea-flour cake hailing from Genoa that’s traditionally topped with all manner of deliciousness including stracchino (a soft, creamy cow’s cheese) and pesto. Casa Barotti will sell these products by the piece, or half piece, rather than by weight.
The display counter — meant to replicate pizza window displays often seen throughout Rome — will be the driving factor behind the grab-and-go concept, but come 5 o’clock, Casa Barotti will transform into a traditional Italian bar (pending a beer and wine license approval, of course).
“Like Italian tradition mandates,” Carsano said, “at 5 p.m. it’s aperitivo time. We want Casa Barotti to transform into an Italian bar at night, where you stand up and chat with your friends and grab a little bit of salami, a piece of Parmigiano, a sip of wine and that’s it… a true, rustic, urban Italian feeling is what we want to provide.”
Vying to be the Bay Area’s first spizzicheria — colloquially understood as “little munches” or “casual bites” in Italian — Carsano insists that success will come from using quality, imported ingredients, with rotating spotlights on dishes found throughout Italy. Carsano said he wants to do a basic line of Italian pizza and focaccia, but then throw in a weekly or monthly street-food special that targets a particular region. So from one week to the next, you might enjoy a sample of tasty bites from Piemonte, Liguria or Emilia-Romagna.
“We want to have the freedom to cover all of Italy,” he said. “Because there is so much we can offer.” But since he lives in the Bay, Carsano will rely heavily on his two partners in Turin.
“I travel to Italy a lot, but in order to bring the true authentic flavor you have to be there,” Carsano said. “That’s why I rely on my friends because they are there, in Italy, and are guaranteed to maintain the authentic flavor,” which in turn will be showcased at the College Avenue eatery.
With plans to offer a gamut of products, from dry salumi to aged Parmigiano, fresh olive oil to small-batch milled flour, Carsano is pulling out all the stops. For example, the chef-owner has contracted with small mills in Piemonte in northern Italy to produce his own blend of flour for the focaccia and pizza dough. And who wouldn’t want beautiful fresh olive oil from Puglia? With the help of his Turin partners, Carsano will be importing all of the specialty products himself because “we simply cannot find it here.”
But that’s not to say he won’t give a nod to the Bay Area and the incredible bounty of produce that comes from local California growers.
“We are the best state for produce,” he said unequivocally. “So everything will be local.” And true to Bay Area form, everything will be seasonal too. In fact seasonality will play a huge role in the spizzicheria’s creations simply because it’s an important custom in Italy to eat local and with the seasons.
“I always have to rethink what I’m doing [with the menu], because while we get strawberries and watermelon here in winter, there is none of that anywhere in Italy,” Carsano said. “I always have to remember that seasonality is at the base of Italian [cooking] tradition. Italians eat local. Each community relies on availability and sustainability in order to have that connection to authentic Italian cuisine, and we intend to follow the same” while still paying homage to California.
Until its opening (slated for the middle of February), however, the space will undergo a bit of renovations led by the stylish Berkeley architecture firm Studio KDA, which has transformed such spaces as downtown Berkeley’s Comal and San Leandro’s Top Hatters Kitchen and Bar. Carsano hopes that his vision of a clean-lined, modern eatery, tinged with a bit of timeless Italian character (think a giant photo of a piazza blown up across a wall and specialty items for sale imported directly from Italy), will soon come to life.
Ultimately, though, Carsano is most excited for the opportunity to offer the area a unique dining experience that reminds him of home.
“We want to give this opportunity to people who have not been able to go to Italy yet,” he said, “and have not had these types of authentic flavors. We are going to bring it to the Bay Area and hope they’ll enjoy it as much as we do.”
Casa Barotti will be at 3204 College Ave. (at Alcatraz Avenue), Berkeley