Wendy Brucker's Tuscan trattoria jazzes up the Berkeley dining scene.
Photography by Ed Anderson
YOU’VE GOT TO admire a restaurant that just puts it out there. Amazing food, beautifully prepared, and if you’re looking for colorful art on the walls, maybe go check out a museum. The art on Corso’s walls is framed menus from the Italian trattorias that inspired the restaurant, mostly unreadable from your table even as decoration, a symbol if there ever was one that it’s all about the food.
Corso’s location puts it up against some of the best food in Berkeley. Located on the southern edge of the Gourmet Ghetto, it shares a stretch of Shattuck Avenue with Chez Panisse and César, not to mention the Cheeseboard and Grégoire. Its location also puts it a smidge closer than, say, Chez Panisse to the plays, movies, and performances happening in downtown Berkeley and on the UC Berkeley campus. It feels as much like a place to grab a beforehand dinner as one where you’d seat your extended family around one of the communal tables to celebrate.
The executive chef of Corso is Wendy Brucker, whose first Berkeley restaurant, Rivoli, is so good, it’s a busman’s holiday for chefs from other restaurants. Chef de Cuisine Rodrigo da Silva oversees the kitchen's day-to-day operations and is responsible for many of the restaurant's newer menu items. One taste of Corso’s tuna crudo—so fresh it seems as if it might flap around on your plate, its dressing seasoned to high heaven, with big, fresh pieces of grated pepper and bits of shallot—and it starts to become clear why chefs would choose to spend a night off in Brucker’s second restaurant. A few bites of the salad of romaine lettuces, belt-it-out anchovy-lemon vinaigrette, and little crispy shreds of homemade croutons, and you’ll want to spend all your nights off at Corso. Heck, you may quit your job and start having long, leisurely lunches there, too.
With a nod to Napoli, pizza is an important part of the Corso experience. Luckily, the crust is thin and so delectable, you could just eat it like bread. The cheeses on the different varieties stand out, each so nutty or creamy, or so slightly funky, they’re like the best of breeds from some local cheese show. The funghi shows up dotted with porcini and crimini mushrooms, in a thin blanket of Fontina and Piave cheese. The flavors are rich and interesting, although, taking the risk of sounding like a snuffling pig, a bit more white truffle oil would not have been unwelcome.
The knockout among the pastas was the panzotti of butternut squash, as much like crepes as giant ravioli. The preparation is not all that unusual: ricotta, sage, a brown butter sauce. However, you may never have tasted anything so arresting. The pasta is a layer of tender cloud. The mellow flavors of the winter squash, the ricotta, the brown butter, and beautifully toasted walnuts represent more degrees of nuttiness than your average mental hospital. The sage provides just the herbal bite to counterbalance the sweetness of the dish and, fried perfectly crisp, is as addictive as a bag of your favorite snacks.
A second pasta, the pappardelle with a duck ragu, shone, too. The pappardelle, although not made in-house, could throw down against any Italian mama’s pasta for tenderness and flavor. The duck, braised almost to oblivion, had a deep, lingering flavor. Ultimately, though, the softness and sweetness may have gone too far, and the resulting texture just didn’t seem all that interesting.
That far into the meal, going into a big entrée might seem like a lot, but on a night that didn’t involve pizza, the T-bone alla Fiorentina sounded irresistible, especially with Corso’s stellar sides—in this case sautéed spinach and broccoli rabe. Unfortunately, recollections of Chianina steak such as the ones served around Florence remained in the category of reasons to go back to Italy. The steak served that night at Corso showed up a bit beyond the medium rare offered on the menu, and so it was dry. Flavorful? Yes, it tasted like especially good-quality grass-fed beef, and perhaps its being grass-fed accounted for how susceptible it was to overcooking.
Of course, a somewhat disappointing entrée is no reason to stay away from dessert, which in this case meant a chocolate budino—a cross between an outrageously chocolaty molten cake and a pudding—and the Tuscan classic combo of vin santo and biscotti. Creamy, dense gelato also ends the meal on a fantastic note, making it easy to conclude that by bringing her Tuscan trattoria to Berkeley, chef Brucker has successfully imported the experience of a culture in which food is at the heart.
To pull that off here takes boldness and talent. Luckily, Brucker has both.
CONTACT: 1788 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 704-8004, trattoriacorso.com.
HOURS: Lunch and dinner daily. Plus, a special brunch menu on the weekends.
PRICE: Appetizers $7–$13, entrées $10–$32.
ALCOHOL: Full bar.
at a glance
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL: Genuine ingredients and cooking skill, without a whole lot of pretense.
THE SPACE: A high ceiling, tile floor, and wooden furniture make for an understated, urban, European vibe.
WHEN TO GO: On a weeknight or early on a weekend evening, when it’s not too crowded.
WHAT TO ORDER: The tuna crudo, panzotti ravioli of butternut squash, pizza, chocolate budino.
BE SURE TO: Order a cup of coffee. Even the decaf rocks.
BONUS: The cocktail menu uses artisan spirits and fresh ingredients, and includes an out-of-this-world Champagne cocktail called La Contessa Bella.