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From Italy, With Love

Ottavio: The authentic flavors of Veneto brought to life in Walnut Creek.


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Photography by Jennifer Martine

Until recently, if you were in the mood for authentic Italian—I’m talking wild boar and pork cheeks, and grilled octopus and cannellini beans, and salty grilled sardines, and cheeses that smell like your Uncle Vinny’s socks—your choices east of the Caldecott were limited. There was the homey, elegant Prima, of course, which has long served dishes from all over Italy that magically make "authentic" more approachable.


And now there's Ottavio, which opened over a year ago, just down the street from Prima, around the same time as several other great eateries along Walnut Creek’s North Main Street restaurant row—that what-smells-so-good stretch from Sasa in the south to Élevé in the north.

While other new restaurants were getting most of the buzz, Ottavio was quickly capturing the hearts of Italy-loving diners and local chefs. It’s an attractive, reasonably priced place—the second most expensive item is the filet, $28, a dish that could easily cost more—a chef-owned place, serving innovative, passionate Italian food.

“I love that Ottavio pushes the limits," says Michele Nguyen, chef-owner of Élevé and a big Ottavio fan. “Grilled sardines and house-smoked fish? House-cured meats? Who does that around here?”

Re-creating the flavors of his home in the Veneto region of northern Italy, chef-owner Valentino Luchin (formerly of San Francisco’s Rose Pistola) has let his tongs take culinary risks at Ottavio, creating something unique, something that some diners found at first to be perhaps a little too Italian.

“In the beginning, some people would come in, and they would leave without ordering. Now, people understand what we are doing,” says Luchin.

Initially, there were reports of spotty service, but these days, with a menu scattered unapologetically with lovely Italian, this come-as-you-are osteria really seems to have hit its stride. On several recent visits, the food and service were nothing short of Michelangelo spectacular. I only wish Luchin would change up the menu more often so I’d have more dishes to try.

On a recent rainy Wednesday night, we settled in to a table in front by the bar. With eggplant-colored walls, exposed wood beams, and handsome leather chairs, the restaurant focuses on the tiny open kitchen that spills out to a chef’s counter, where local business owners perched on bar stools and our waiter chatted in Italian with the chef.

That bar now serves a full lineup of cocktails, some better than others. Even at the height of summer, the Bellini lacked the kiss of fresh peach. But the Valentino (named for you know who), a zesty vodka-citrus concoction as fresh and handcrafted as Luchin’s food, made up for it.

The beef carpaccio with artichokes ($13) was butter soft and drizzled with a white truffle vinaigrette, less aromatic than the straight oil I often find cloying. The house-smoked swordfish with capers ($13) was nothing less than a religious experience. Paired with the 2010 Lugana, Provenza ($12), a whisper-light white wine with notes of jasmine and cantaloupe, the dish left me dreaming about a summer trip I took to Venice years ago.

Ottavio goes the extra kilometer with unusual offerings: house-cured salumi, goat mocetta (ham). Perhaps my favorite artisanal item is the bigoli, a bumpy, extruded long tube spaghetti with a doughy softness—the iconic pasta of Veneto. One night, Valentino agreed to prepare it with the smoked duck. Another time, I enjoyed it with spicy Venetian clams, mussels, calamari, and shrimp swimming in a savory tomato broth ($21).

Which brings us to the end of our Italian journey: the dessert. Do not—I repeat—do not leave without a taste of the goat’s milk panna cotta, the classic Italian “cooked cream.” Living somewhere between custard and the Sistine Chapel, the creamy dollop, painted with a mellow balsamic reduction, exemplifies what authentic Italian cooking is all about.


 

 

At a Glance

What’s so special: Almost everything is made in-house: the pasta, the cured meats, the smoked fish. This is labor-of-love cooking. The space: Small, very small. Do like the Italians and make a reservation. Don’t miss: The chef really shows his cooking chops with the juicy house-smoked pork chop served with a spicy fig-apricot mostarda (similar to apple sauce). Bonus: The character and integrity of the food is similar to Prima, Walnut Creek’s perennial favorite.

Contact: 1606 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 930-8008, ottavio-osteria.com. Hours: Dinner daily. Price: Appetizers $8–$16, entrées $17–$29. Alcohol: Full bar.
 

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