Briganti pasta from Corso. Photo: Alix Wall
Briganti pasta ($18) from Corso. Photo: Alix Wall

With the opening seven years ago of Corso, co-owner and executive chef Wendy Brucker and co-owner Roscoe Skipper set out to recreate a trattoria with the simplicity of a Tuscan restaurant. The restaurant quickly found its regulars, partially due to the reputation of its sister restaurant Rivoli. However, chef de cuisine Scott Eastman says the restaurant is just now finding its groove.

“It’s taken us some time and practice to really get there, but now is the time where the restaurant is really starting to reach the mind’s eye of what the owners wanted it to be,” he said.

Eastman would know. He’s been there since the restaurant opened in 2008. “I had the opportunity to see a restaurant from its beginning and I just continued to grow with this place,” he said.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, Eastman worked with Marcus Samuelsson at New York’s Aquavit before returning to his native California. He started working at Corso as a line cook, but was promoted to sous chef within a few months. Eastman was co-chef de cuisine for several years, and he is now solely in charge. “Leading the kitchen on my own is a whole new journey and challenge,” he said.

Eastman says that Corso’s improvements are due to his staff, who he says have all grown tremendously in their ability to butcher meat and make pasta.

Corso Chef Scott Eastman
Scott Eastman, Corso’s chef de cuisine. Photo: Corso
Scott Eastman, Corso’s chef de cuisine. Photo: Corso

Skipper says Eastman is too modest. “He gives a lot of credit to his staff, as that’s what a leader does,” he said. “They always promote their guys, but he is the guy that leads by example. We attract much better cooks now that he’s our chef.”

Skipper says the food has “really blossomed” with Eastman at the helm, and called him “a quiet genius. He goes deep into his methods to figure out the best way to cook something. He’s like a quiet professor of the kitchen.”

Regulars of the restaurant noticed quite a few changes in the last year, including a revamped cocktail program. There, bar manager Justin Sutton replaced artificially colored and flavored Italian spirits like Campari with newer artisanal versions.

The restaurant also had a major kitchen makeover, including the installation of a special cooler for aging meats. While Corso had always practiced nose-to-tail butchery, access to the new cooler has allowed the restaurant’s salumi selection to expand.

“Our salumi program has definitely evolved and become more fine-tuned,” said Eastman. “It’s something that plays into our whole ethos [of] our food, which is that we utilize [all of our ingredients] using old-world artisan techniques. It’s one of those things where not only is it good business practice, but [it also] plays right into what we do. And it happens to be one of the gems of Italian cooking.”

A state-of-the-art pasta cooker has also improved the restaurant’s ability to deliver the perfect plate of the beloved staple. Corso is now serving many several different hand-made shapes and sauces that “you might not have a chance to try if you don’t travel to Italy,” said Eastman.

Some of these shapes, however, require a lot of excess flour, which ends up creating foam in the cooking water. If left in the water, the foam can affect the next batch. The new pasta cooker is directly connected to a water line, and it provides a much easier method to drain the excess.

Corso exterior. Photo courtesy: Corso
Corso opened on North Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue in 2008. Photo courtesy: Corso
Corso opened on North Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue in 2008. Photo courtesy: Corso

But more than the kitchen remodel, Eastman says he feels a difference in the dining room. He likes that Corso is the kind of place where friends who bump into each other unexpectedly can join tables and where the regulars know what to expect.

“I think they’re really enjoying things right now,” he said. “We’ve matured. A lot of the dishes we do are simple but nicely executed, with the emphases in the right areas for diners to enjoy themselves. The salumi refrigerator and pasta cooker are just appliances.”

So if you’re not a regular, what can you expect to find on Corso’s menu? The restaurant recently treated NOSH to dinner to find out.

We started with cocktails. The Paper Plane includes Old Bardstown bourbon, amaro Nonino, Cappelletti and lemon, while the summery Keelhauler blends Avua Prata Cachaca (a Brazilian sugarcane spirit), Hamilton rum, strawberry shrub, Amaro Ciociaro and lime. Those wanting wine can choose from the all-Italian wine list; options are available by the glass, carafe or half-glass.

Cocktails at Corso. Photo: Alix Wall
The Paper Plane ($12) and the Keelhauler ($13) at Corso. Photo: Alix Wall

The house-cured salumi plate came with Genoa salami (pork, beef, white pepper and garlic); spicy coppa (pork shoulder, calabrian chili); pelle croccante (fried pork skins); pepperoni (beef, pork, cayenne, anise seed); ciccioli (pork rillettes on toast), and pickled cauliflower.

House-cured salumi plate at Corso. Photo: Alix Wall
House-cured salumi plate ($21) at Corso. Photo: Alix Wall

We sampled the rucola salad which featured arugula, fennel, roased pine nuts, Black Mission and Candy Stripe figs and Parmesan cheese.

The Rucola salad from Corso. Photo: Alix Wall
The Rucola salad ($11) from Corso. Photo: Alix Wall

For our pasta course — there are always several from which to choose — we chose the briganti (a hat-shaped pasta), which is tossed with Penn Cove mussels, house-smoked bacon, garlic, Savoy spinach, chili flakes and tarragon.

For our fish course, we tried Corso’s pesce del giorno, which on our visit was local Lingcod with charred gypsy peppers and summer squash in a tomato-saffron brodetto. Another popular option is the whole roasted branzino, a mainstay on the menu.

Pesce Del Giorno from Corso. Photo: Alix Wall
Pesce Del Giorno from Corso ($26). Photo: Alix Wall

Another staple is the pollo al burro alla sostanza (butter-roasted Hoffman Farms chicken breast). Regulars would riot if it were ever removed from the menu.

Pollo al Burro alla Sostanza at Corso. Photo: Alix Wall
Pollo al burro alla sostanza ($16) at Corso. Photo: Alix Wall

We ended on a sweet note with the budino al cioccolato — a flourless chocolate cake done up with caramel sauce, chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Budino al cioccolato at Corso. Photo: Alix Wall
Budino al cioccolato ($8) at Corso. Photo: Alix Wall

Nosh does not, as a policy, review restaurants where we receive complementary food and drink. Rather we hope to provide a sense of the place and what is on offer there. Corso is at 1788 Shattuck Ave. (between Delaware and Francisco streets), Berkeley. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s...