By Adrienne Schell
Family dinners are a part of our culture that have lost importance in many parts of the country. Impacted daily schedules, busy lives and, in some cases, the lure of the screen have caused time spent around the table in the evening hours to be the exception to the norm. East Bay California-Italian restaurants have done a great job helping my family buck that trend.
In Italian, the saying, “Gioie della tavola,” translates to “the joys of the table.” In other words, time spent with family, good food and good conversation is at the heart of the culture. The Italian appreciation for seasonal ingredients and traditional wood-fire cooking methods has worked its way into our own food culture here in the East Bay. The below spots offer the best of fresh, local ingredients in Italian dishes with a California twist — perfect for a family meal.
The Glenview neighborhood of Oakland mourned when Marzano closed its doors in the spring of 2014. This neighborhood eatery with amazing staples such as wood-fired antipasti meatballs and pizza bianca was a perfect spot for a cozy family dinner, a drink with friends at the bar or a Saturday lunch al fresco. When the prior employees decided to come together and re-open the restaurant after the short-lived Growlers Arms closed, those of us who were diehard fans rejoiced. Guess what? It’s exactly the same. The décor might be a bit different, but the food is on point, and I couldn’t have been happier. Since my husband and I now have two children, our old habit of popping in for dinner at the bar is not quite as doable. However, an early family dinner in a cozy booth, plus a “bambino” kids’ menu, is just as good. Seasonal rotations such as fritto misto and fried squash blossoms sit right next to those iconic meatballs on the menu. We stuck with our favorites on our recent visit — the Marzano chopped salad and pizza bianca with Prosciutto di Parma and wild arugula. The Strauss soft serve machine is back in action too, so the kids were happy campers. Perfection. Marzano Restaurant is at 4214 Park Blvd. (at Woodruff Avenue), Oakland.
For over 10 years, Pizzaiolo, Charlie Hallowell’s flagship restaurant in Temescal, has taken the farm-to-table ideology and self-described “simple act of feeding humans” to a level of success that has brought endless praise and spawned two additional restaurants. As it states right on its website, the restaurant “love[s] kids!” So, of course, families are welcome. The warmth of the space is perfect for cozy family dinners inside, and the lovely back patio is perfect for an al fresco meal. That all being said, Pizzaiolo does not have a specific kids’ menu. Instead, it encourages children to taste and try new things, which means that this might not be the spot for you if you have a particularly picky eater — or if screen time is what you need to get through a dinner with a cranky toddler. (Pizzaiolo asks that diners keep electronic devices off the table.) However, if a simple marinara or margherita pizza will keep your kid happy, you are in luck. Pizzaiolo is at 5008 Telegraph Ave. (at 51st Street), Oakland. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Boot and Shoe Service, Grand Lake
Boot and Shoe Service, Hallowell’s second restaurant, has become another Oakland icon. There, simple, seasonal ingredients come together in flavor combinations that never fail to impress me. One of the things I love about Boot and Shoe is that when you pull up its website, a photo of a smiling child waving at you from inside its window looks back at you. It’s a sign of what many of us already know: Boot and Shoe welcomes families with open arms. Sardine cans full of crayons and old menus come to the table quickly for coloring, and always at the offering is a kids’ margherita pizza sans chili flakes and basil. My son has eaten close to an entire pizza on his own. On my most recent visit, the waiter offered to cut a straw down for my toddler to drink her juice. Adults can’t go wrong with seasonal antipasti and pizza, and you are remiss to not try their house-made tonic. I have never had a bad meal at Boot and Shoe Service. Each is engrained in my memory bank because of the amazing food and memories created, just as a good meal with family should be. (Note: The same electronic device policy is in place at Boot and Shoe Service as Pizzaiolo.) Boot and Shoe Service is at 3308 Grand Ave., Oakland. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Hen House, Old Oakland
When two moms come together to create rustic, seasonal Italian food in Old Oakland, you know a visit with the family is in order. Hen House is tucked into the revived and vibrant Swan’s Marketplace, which offers the ultimate communal dining experience — sitting as a family next to other families, neighbors and members of the community. A simple and delicious menu of salads, snacks and pizzas, including the family-friendly margherita, await. Play time in the center courtyard or a trip to the new Cookiebar Creamery, just two blocks away, are both perfect ways to round out a summertime family meal. Hen House is in Swan’s Marketplace at 907 Washington St. (at Ninth Street), Oakland.
You’ve got a two-for-one family evening at Forge Pizza in Jack London Square — wood-fired pizza plus a waterfront location perfect for boat and bird watching. Kids’ menus are supplied for coloring, while grown-ups can enjoy great cocktails, craft beers and pizzas topped with everything from roasted corn and chorizo to bacon and pickled peppers. Keep in mind, though, that Forge plays movies on large screens on the walls. My kids are still quite young and didn’t seem to notice that “The Shining” was playing above their heads, but this fact is something to consider if your children are a bit older and might need to be supervised or faced away from the screen if a questionable movie is on the reel. Forge Pizza is at 66 Franklin St. (near Embarcadero), Oakland. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Little Star Pizza, Albany and The Star on Grand, Grand Lake
Little Star Pizza on Solano Avenue is the deep-dish pizza restaurant giving Zachary’s a run for its money. Italian insalate classics such as caprese and Ceasar can tide you over while you wait for your pie, and don’t forget the warm sourdough bread with roasted garlic butter. If you decide to go with a deep-dish pizza, remember that it does take at least 25 minutes to bake, so bring activities for antsy kiddos, or, if all else fails, take them outside and “run ‘em.”
The Star on Grand is a newer, bigger iteration of Little Star, with an expanded menu including classic subs such as Italian sausage or meatball. The pizzas have the same ingredients as the Albany location, but they come with Oakland-inspired names such as “The Town” and “Tribune.” The Star also has a great bar if you and the family have to wait a bit for a table. If you are in the Grand Lake neighborhood, be sure to consider them if you have a hankering for deep dish. Pick-up or delivery is an option, too, if a Friday night family meal at home is in order. Little Star Pizza is at 1181 Solano Ave. (at Stannage Avenue), Albany. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook and Instagram. The Star on Grand is at 3425 Grand Ave. (at Mandana Boulevard), Oakland. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Benchmark Pizzeria, Kensington
Another wood-fired spot boasting classic Italian ingredients is tucked in the hills of Kensington. Benchmark is owned by couple Peter and Melissa Swanson, who bring years of experience working at Oliveto, Dopo and Chez Panisse to the table. What doesn’t get more kid-friendly is that the restaurant states on its website that pizzas cook in two minutes inside the 800ºF oven. If you have ever had to wait for food to come out with a starving kiddo, you know that two-minute time is key when the family is hungry for seasonal and sustainable goodness. Benchmark Pizzeria is at 1568 Oak View Ave. (at Curtis Street), Kensington. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Like Benchmark, Paisan is a neighborhood restaurant offering seasonal ingredients touched with a wood-fired singe. An upscale spot known to be family-friendly in the earlier dinner hours, Paisan offers authentic Italian menu choices with a local touch. Paisan’s wood oven juts out onto the back patio — perfect for keeping little eyes entertained. In addition to their pizza offerings, the restaurant offers house-made pasta, classic Bolognese and the ever-so-kid-friendly fettuccine with butter and Parmesan. Paisan is at at 2514 San Pablo Ave. (at Dwight Way), Berkeley.