Salumi misti of culatto, finocchiana, toscano, njuda at Adesso on Piedmont Ave. Photo: Kate Williams

Much of a restaurant’s popularity in this age of Yelp depends on fanatic online reviews and subsequent adoration of particular dishes. Sometimes these dishes actually reflect the essence of a restaurant’s identity, while other times they are simply too bold and nutty to ignore. In our “To Die For” column, Kate Williams looks at East Bay’s popular restaurants through the lens of a single, sought-after dish. Is the food is a bunch of hype, or is is in fact “to die for?”  

One bite of Adesso’s prosciutto and any omnivore would be hooked. The first sensation is of the smooth, opulent fat melting on the tongue. Then the just-salty-enough pork hits, and the few bites it requires to consume the whisper thin slice are pure heaven. So it’s no wonder that when Adesso opened in 2009, the Piedmont Avenue wine and charcuterie bar was met with long lines and an abundance of praise. The brainchild of Dopo’s John Smulewitz and salumieri Chad Arnold, the bar was designed to function as a casual, free-spirited ode to cured meats of all kinds. Everyone, from the Chronicle’s Michael Bauer to the hordes of Yelperati, sang its praises.

Much of its initial adoration came from the happy hour. For a couple of years after opening, Adesso maintained a free apertivo-hour buffet full of salumi, antipasti, and even sandwiches. The convivial atmosphere was meant to carry over to regular hours, where diners could chose to sample sometimes up to 30 different salumis, patés, and cheeses to pair with their well-curated Italian wine list. Over time, however, the apertivo hour has been dialed back to a gratis plate of antipasti — often a salad, pizza, and charcuterie item.

But no matter the rules of the happy hour, the real draw to Adesso has always been the charcuterie program. Arnold exhibits a craftsman’s sensibilities with his meat; he starts from scratch with pasture-raised animals and breaks them down into a colorful array of patés, forcemeats, prosciuttos, and salamis. Each maintains a distinct flavor profile — some are seasoned simply with salt and pepper to let the pure richness of the meat shine through, while others take more assertive fennel, smoked paprika, or red wine notes.

Coppa di testa (pressed and cured pork’s head) at Adesso. Photo: Kate Williams

Charcuterie items are always available a la carte, but most diners seek out the misti (mixed) platters for exploration and value’s sake. The chef’s selection generally includes more familiar names like prosciutto or mortadella, but the plate is far from conservative. Recently, the paté on offer for this misti was whipped lardo — yes, pure pork fat. Other misti, like the Emilia Romana, offer less familiar names like culatto, felino, and crespone, giving diners a chance to explore a particular region or set of flavors. But for the utmost in a charcuterie dinner, the best bet is to pick a platter with the most adventurous choices, and supplement from there.

On a recent Saturday happy hour, the Adesso antipasti misti ($20) offered the greatest choice. A diverse spread of culatto (delicate dry cured top rounded with a generous layer of fat and drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil), finocchiana (fragrant pork salami accented with fennel pollen and garlic), toscano (paper-thin, burgundy colored salami flecked with fat back and black pepper), and njuda (a spicy Calabrian paté spread on crostini). The misti came with a generous selection of orange- and thyme-marinated olives and safe but nonetheless enjoyable pecorino lucano. A generous spread of funky, musky coppa di testa (pressed and cured pork’s head) ($10) with a bright squeeze of lemon rounded out the spread.

Of course, there are other dishes on offer should you wish to make a meal out of a visit. Unfortunately, none live up to the caliber of the charcuterie. The pizza on offer is Roman-style pan pizza with a thick, chewy crust and heavy hand with both the sauce and cheese. Toppings, such as bitter chicory, spinach-flecked ricotta, and miniature meatballs, are diverse and flavorful, but fans of Dopo’s thin crusts will be surprised, and perhaps disappointed, by the heaviness of the pizza at Adesso. Salads, oysters, and cheeses, and small plates, such as arancini and coddled eggs, punctuate the menu. Each are fine, but aren’t truly necessary when there’s more prosciutto to eat.

The Lowdown:

Restaurant: Adesso 4395 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, 510-601-0305
Dish: Salumi misti platter, an ever-changing plate of housemade cured meats and patés, each a pure bite of charcuterie at its best.
Cost: $15 to $20, depending on selection. Even at happy hour, there is little wait for a table. Note: loud music can take toll on eardrums.
Other dishes of note: Roman-style Pan Pizza, free antipasti during apertivo hour (5pm to 6pm and 10:30pm to 11:30pm, Monday through Wednesday; 5pm to 6pm and 11pm to 12pm, Thursday through Saturday)

Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.

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Kate Williams

Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...