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Fire in the Kitchen

Borgo Italia: Italian passion makes sparks fly at this elegant Old Oakland restaurant.


Photography by Angela Decenzo

Borgo Italia’s Franco Camboli was in the middle of telling me about the origins of his restaurant’s near-legendary torta fritta Emiliana appetizer, when co-owner and fellow Italian Fabio Dalle Vacche decided he had had enough.

“Stop lying, Franco; stop lying to this man! That’s my mother’s recipe, and you know it!” he yelled, before storming out of the room.

Borgo, a new Italian eatery in revitalized Old Oakland, was inspired by the restaurant near Parma, Italy, that Dalle Vacche’s mother ran for more than 50 years. Camboli, who ran his own bakery in Tuscany for years, has tweaked some of those original dishes; so yes, when it comes to the subject of recipes, the two fiery owners will occasionally butt heads. Clearly, lack of passion is not an issue at this restaurant.

Happily for diners, most of the owners’ passion is directed at the food and the experience provided in the elegant, high-ceilinged dining room. The charismatic Dalle Vacche runs the front of the house with a bullfighterlike confidence while in the back, Camboli slaves over his sublime Italian pastries. Dalle Vecche labels his partner’s baking touch “genius,” and I could see why, after one bite of his ciambellas—heavenly cream-filled Italian donuts. (Warning: As of press time, Camboli was back in Italy to secure his work visa, so no pastries until his return.)  

Paul Ferrari, the hands-off third owner, and occasional peacemaker, labels the Northern Italian fare (cooked nightly by sous chef Sergev Ras) cucina casalinga, or home-cooked country food: simple, comforting, accessible, affordable. “This is the kind of food I enjoyed eating after being on the road all day in Italy,” says Ferrari, who met his partners separately during his frequent trips abroad for his Italian specialty food retail chain, A.G. Ferrari. “Franco and Fabio both have a lot of passion for the food we’re trying to do here—and that’s a good thing.”

Or as Dalle Vacche says, “We don’t fight about money; we fight about recipes and where they come from. But we have the same philosophy when it comes to food: It should be simple, with excellent main ingredients.”

A good place to start on Borgo’s frequently changing menu is that torta fritta of disputed origin. This wonderful little appetizer consists of light squares of fried dough puffed up to resemble miniature pillows and served with salumi. It is the kind of playful food that will delight diners of all ages.

Pastas are understated, house-made, and meant to showcase just one or two ingredients, sometimes to a fault. The potato gnocchi with basil pesto came off as a bit bland and one-note. The spaghetti alla chitarra, served table side from a sizzling sauté pan, left a vibrant impression on the palate, with its sharply sweet, acidic tomato-basil sauce, but could also be accused of lacking complexity.

Ultimately, my favorite dishes at Borgo—and the best interpretation of the restaurant’s straightforward philosophy—were the meat entrées. The salsiccia al vino con cipollata was a tightly coiled rope of dark, wine-braised pork sausage served simply with sweet braised red onion. It’s not fussy or even pretty, but it is hearty, comforting, and delicious. Also excellent was the osso buco, a generous section of braised beef shank surrounding bone and decadent marrow, atop buttery, creamy polenta. This is winter comfort
food epitomized.

Now, the dish that brought me back for more is the tagliatelle al ragu, consisting of a flavorful meat sauce with sweet flecks of carrot over fresh-made, perfectly al dente egg noodles. It’s the kind of subtly good food that, like a good song, doesn’t necessarily knock you out at first but rather sneaks up on you, resonating long after it’s finished. But good luck figuring out what exactly is in that ragu.

I asked Camboli, who told me that it was all beef. (“That’s the traditional recipe from Emilia-Romagna, 100-percent beef, finished.”) A few days later, when I was wolfing down another plateful, I asked Dalle Vacche, who told me with unshakable confidence that it was part veal, part pork.

What is the main ingredient then? Who knows? But I do know that I enjoyed every bite of both. So in the end, maybe it doesn’t really matter.


At a Glance

What makes it special: Simple, authentic, and reasonable Northern Italian food specific to the Emilia-Romagna/Liguria/Tuscany regions. The space: The 1800s–era building’s elegant interior is cozy without feeling cramped and is both hip (a clubby beat plays over the speakers) and rustic (old-world wagons, cookery, and farm tools line the walls). When to go: In the morning for an Italian espresso and pastry, or for dinner. It’s also a great place to dine solo at the bar. What to order: The torta fritta appetizer, brussels sprouts, tagliatelle al ragu, any meat entrée. Bonus: The all-Italian wine list is ample and affordable. An array of apéritifs and digestifs are also available.

Contact: 499 Ninth St., Oakland, (510) 251-1008, borgoitaliaoakland.com. Hours: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner Mon.–Sat. Price: Appetizers $6–$12, pasta/pizza/entrées $10–$18. Alcohol: Full bar.


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