The traditional Rockridge Restaurant Oliveto will finally close at the end of 2021. Credit: Oliveto
5655 College Ave. (in the market hall building), Oakland
Oliveto, the 35-year-old Rockridge restaurant that paved the way for the Kal-Italian food movement of the 1990s and early 2000s, will close in late 2021, co-owner Bob Klein told Nosh on Tuesday. “Maggie and I are going to retire,” Klein said, referring to his wife, Oliveto co-founder and cookbook author Maggie Blyth Klein. “It’s never the right time” to end a restaurant run, said 74-year-old Klein, but “we’re stubborn and we wanted to keep the pandemic out … we want to go out with joy.”
This attitude of enthusiasm and positivity is a hallmark of the long-standing restaurant whose cuisine has been led by chefs such as Duendes Paul Canales, Michael Tusk of San Francisco’s three-Michelin-star quince, and Paul Bertolli. Bertolli (who also served as head chef at Chez Panisse from 1982 to 1992) guided Oliveto through his nationally acclaimed period from 1995 to 2005, during which he – as the then food critic Michael Bauer of the SF Chronicle once put it – “made Oliveto the which many “consider the best Italian restaurant in the United States.”
White truffle tajarin, a memorable dish from a previous Oliveto menu. Photo credit: Oliveto
“The life that has taken place here for the past 35 years has been remarkable,” says Klein of his restaurant, which Bauer has ascribed to notable restaurants in the Bay Area such as Delfina, A16 and Flour + Water. Often mentioned in the same breath as Chez Panisse, which opened in Berkeley just 15 years before Oliveto served its first plate of pasta, Oliveto was also “locally sourced” and “farm-to-table” long before those phrases became marketing buzzwords became. Establishing direct relationships with farmers and sellers to ensure the highest possible quality of supplies, meat and products.
(In fact, these relationships are so close that when Nosh contacted Klein about the alleged Oliveto closure, he asked us to postpone the publication until “I can speak to the farmers we work with.” [because] I don’t want them to find out about it from anyone but us. “
Just like Chez Panisse, Oliveto functions as a restaurant and café: on the top floor of his iconic building at 5655 College Ave. is his upscale white-tablecloth dining establishment, with a menu of $ 20 to $ 37 appetizers such as wild mushroom bucatini and half a moon bay black cod smoked in coffee. At street level, there’s a casual-style Italian cafe that Klein remodeled in 2019 to serve slices of Roman pizza and whole wheat bagels from Berkeley’s Boichik Bagels, as well as take-away sandwiches and a Mr. Espresso espresso bar. It will also be closed at the end of the year.
However, Klein was firmly convinced that Oliveto would go out with a bang, not the proverbial whimper. “It’s really hard to own a restaurant in a pandemic, especially in our last few years,” he admitted, but “Oliveto will be fully grown by December 31st.”
This “mature” includes a revival of many of the events that made Oliveto a travel destination over the past four decades, including special dinners and offers that loyal guests will recognize from years past. “We would like to [Oliveto’s final months] to be satisfied, ”said Klein (a former journalist) with a chuckle.
While Klein declined to give details of Oliveto’s exact events, fans know the place is known for hosting days of celebrations with ingredients like the truffle, as well as an “Oceanic Dinner,” usually created by Tom Worthington of Berkeley is curating sustainable fish market leader Monterey Fish Market. “We’ll soon be able to tell all of our customers more,” said Klein.
It is events like this that have helped set Oliveto apart, Worthington told Nosh. “Bob has always been someone who wanted to dig deeply into things like fish or tomatoes,” said Worthington, “and celebrate those things at the right time.”
“When you’re a supplier and someone comes up to you and wants to celebrate what you’re doing, it’s like, ‘Yes, sign me up,'” Worthington said. The special menus were “such a great way to break up a restaurant and it’s so fun.” The events also benefit suppliers, Worthington said, as they “opened your mind to the possibilities” of the ingredients they sell .
At the head of the kitchen is Peter Jackson, a longtime Bay Area entrepreneur and private chef. Jackson “is as good as anyone else in charge of Oliveto’s kitchen,” Klein said, and he is “obliged to help us close the restaurant.”
Klein says the next steps for Oliveto’s high profile space are still unclear. There has been discussion of a possible sale, but nothing solid enough to announce. “We’re looking at options,” he said.
But while Klein says he’s retiring, that’s not entirely true – he remains committed to Community Grains, the traditional wheat, whole wheat, pasta, and bread company he started to support California-grown grains. “Community Grains is in full swing,” said Klein, with plans for a comprehensive education and outreach program over the coming months. “The wheat system is complicated,” said Klein, and the company is considering “how to talk to people who might be interested in us.”
Community Grains is in many ways a continuation of what Klein started at Oliveto, where “one of our goals is to connect our guests with their immediate surroundings”. The idea that “connecting yourself to the food that sustains you” was a continuous line in Klein’s career in nutrition, Worthington said. “And that is unique in the food world, this idea of getting everyone to participate and seeing all the connections we have with each other, with the suppliers and our food.”
Now Klein is focused on joining Oliveto’s loyal customers for one last hurray, two undoubtedly jam-packed months full of guests wanting to have one last meal to be bathed in love, and that’s true, “Klein said. “But first we have to prepare the reservation books.”
For the last two months in business, Oliveto’s upstairs dining room and the downstairs cafe will be open seven nights a week. From Wednesday to Saturday, the restaurant’s kitchen menu is served upstairs. From Sunday to Tuesday dinner is served from the menu in the cafe on the ground floor. Reservations can be made through OpenTable or by calling 510-547-5356 after 4:00 p.m. A vaccination certificate is required for eating upstairs.
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