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Going South to the Heart

A16 Rockridge: Celebrate Italy’s soulful cuisine.


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Photography by Angela Decenzo

 

A16 Rockridge is a simple and inviting open-air restaurant framed by playful aquatic figures drawn from Italian folklore. The shiny illustrations are meant to capture the spirit of the sea and of Southern Italy—A16’s food and wine’s stomping ground.

What gives A16 energy, are the diners: a smart and carefree group animated by the next course, the next wine, the next turn in conversation. The crowd, viewed from a high top in the corner of the bar, appears choreographed.

Chef Rocky MaselliAn uncommonly well-trained and rehearsed staff echoes the diners’ harmony, with a work ethic borrowed from the original A16 in San Francisco’s Marina. Nothing here, however, is formulaic. When chef Rocky Maselli shops, he has no “preconceived notion” of what to buy; he lets the fresh and seasonal catch his eye, and inspire the menu. Associate wine director Nico Sciackitano, meanwhile, finds inspiration from a just-opened bottle of wine—allowing its aroma and flavor to help him select an appropriate food match.

For the rest of us, who decide what to eat before shopping or sipping—who plan dinner backward, you might say—dining at A16 is in order. Request a little guidance, or let Maselli, the waitstaff, and the “Som Team” (as Sciackitano refers to the sommelier staff) make all the big decisions for you.

“I feel kind of naked when I go to a French restaurant with wines I know nothing about,” says Sciackitano. “My job is to be a good listener and slowly narrow down the list.”

Any diner can claim expertise with the food menu because you can’t go wrong. But to please the chef, start with crudo: raw fish seasoned with little more than olive oil and salt. As Maselli puts it, “If seafood is really fresh, the worst thing you can do is cook it.” To wit: sublime and lemony local anchovies, firm and silky California halibut, and glistening Drakes Bay oysters dressed only with a juicy orange wedge to enhance their pristine and briny nature.

Pristine captures much of Maselli’s dishes, including his bright melon salad. Tossed with whole sprigs of purslane, thyme leaves, and shaved ricotta salata, the chunks of melon serve as a backdrop to the sweetly assertive herbs.

The more courses you order here, the better. Pastas are served in two sizes, so go ahead and split one after finishing your crudo and antipasto (and before the arrival of your pizza and secondo). It’s tough to get a table, so make the most of your time there; you can always take any leftover pizza home. Try Maselli’s house-made cavatelli—a chewy bean-sized noodle matched on our visit with cannellini beans, tiny shelled mussels, and bittersweet Italian broccoli. I love the bucatini, too, soaked in olive oil and spiked with lemon, house-cured anchovies, and a sprinkle of bread crumbs.

Maselli went to “pizza school” in Sicily, and he’s done his homework. A16’s pizzas are baked in a 900-degree wood-fired oven and served whole, with a sleek pair of scissors and a fiery “chile flake” sauce. Don’t miss the rachetta, a pizza-calzone in the shape of a cast-iron skillet. The “handle” is stuffed with ricotta and fresh mozzarella, the pie decorated with green olives and artichoke hearts.

Next up are rosy slices of lamb leg, silky tender and on our visit, bright with parsley, lemon, and garlic. The swordfish, too, is a revelation: barely cooked and utterly lush under a blanket of caper aioli.

Finally? Crispy ricotta fritters with apricot and a side of house-made gelato.

A16 refers to the Italian autostrada running from the Gulf of Naples to the Adriatic Sea. A16 Rockridge brings out the best along the way.
 


 

Navigating The Wine List

You needn’t be a wine geek to find and appreciate little-known wines from every corner of Italy. Leave it to one of A16’s experts. Wine director and owner Shelley Lindgren, or one of her sommeliers, will navigate the 14-page wine list for you—a list that includes 40 wines by the half-glass, glass, or carafe. Here’s Lindgren’s take on why our recent pairings worked so well (prices per glass).
 

Wine director Shelley LindgrenThe Dish: Fresh Anchovies
Pairing: Cantina Giardino, ‘Paski,’ Campania Bianco, Campania 2009, $12.
Why it works: Natural acidity cuts the richness in marinated anchovies while its brightness balances the salinity.
 

The Dish: Melon Salad
Pairing: iGreco, ‘Savù,’ Cariati, Cosenza, Calabria 2012, $9.
Why it works: The rose petal delicacy highlights the natural sweetness of the melon and herbal flavor of the purslane.
 

The Dish: Cavatelli
Pairing: Damiano Ciolli, ‘Silene,’ Cesanese, Olevano, Roma, Lazio 2010, $11.
Why it works: This low-tannin, spice-driven wine is built for pasta.
 

The Dish: Pizza Montanara
Pairing: I Pentri, ‘Kerres,’ Piedirosso, Castelvenere, Campania 2007, $11.
Why it works: The volcanic soil the grapes grow in comes through and complements the smoky tomato sauce.
 

The Dish: Swordfish
Pairing: Fattorie Romeo del Castello, ‘Allegracore,’ Etna Rosso, Sicilia 2010, $14.
Why it works: The texture of the swordfish calls for a medium-bodied red with lots of red fruit and higher acidity.
 


Contact: 5356 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 768-8003, a16rockridge.com. Hours: Dinner daily. Price: Antipasti
$11–$14, pizzas $14–$20, entrées $24–$28. Alcohol: Full bar.

 

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