“We’ve always wanted to open a new restaurant,” said Angelo D’Alo. “We’ve had [our first restaurant, Trattoria La Siciliana] for close to 20 years. But it’s so small and its always packed. People always ask us why we haven’t expanded.”
This September, that dream will become reality when D’Alo opens Agrodolce with his brother, Gennuino D’Alo, and parents, Giuseppe and Rosa D’Alo. It will replace the long-running vegan restaurant Café Gratitude, which closed at the end of last year.
The D’Alos have transformed the formerly cavernous space into a light and airy restaurant with both modern-retro touches (Edison bulbs) and traditional elements (pottery brought over from Sicily). A fireplace divides the bar from the dining room, which has at its center a large window to the kitchen. Some nights, there will be old Italian movies or sports events like Formula 1 races or the World Cup projected on one wall in the bar. Other nights, Agrodolce will host live music — everything from jazz trios to acoustic guitar. Out front, the patio will be decked out with overhead vines and a “fence” made from herb-filled planter boxes. A three-wheeled scooter will welcome patrons into the restaurant.
Agrodolce will be a natural extension of the family’s Elmwood restaurant, La Siciliana. The trattoria serves a classic Italian menu peppered with Sicilian specialties, but Agrodolce will focus exclusively on food from Sicily, where Rosa was raised.
“We’ll be able to do all the things we’ve always wanted to do,” said Angelo. “We want to be known for offering new things, things people who think they know Italian food haven’t tried yet.”
“Sicilian food is very different from the Italian food that most people are used to,” he said. “Because it’s an Island in the Mediterranean, it has influence from different parts of Europe and North Africa. … It has Arabic, Spanish, French influence.” That, and the ocean.
“Sicilians will put their lips around anything coming out of the ocean,” said Angelo.
Some of the specials from La Siciliana will appear on the Agrodolce menu, dishes like bucatini ‘chi finucchiedé, a pasta dish with fennel, anchovies, sardines, pine nuts and currants. “The sauce is steeped in Moorish history,” said Angelo. “And it’s a dish you’ll find in homes in Sicily.”
Similarly, he plans to serve Trapanese-style couscous made with seafood and a saffron-flavored broth. Sfincione, a Palermo-style pizza topped with cacio cavallo cheese and a sauce of pureed tomatoes, anchovies and onions, will also be a staple on the menu. For now, pizzas will be cooked in a gas oven, but Angelo plans to add a wood oven in the future.
While the remainder of the menu has yet to be finalized, Angelo said to expect lots of seafood and vegetables. Much of the menu, he added, will be vegetarian- and vegan-friendly — good news for diners missing Café Gratitude. “[Much of Sicilian] cuisine is vegetarian and vegan by default because the region has historically been poor,” he said. “There’s just not a lot of meat.”
Vegan-friendly fare is not the only way Agrodolce is honoring to the building’s previous tenant — Angelo will be sourcing the majority of the restaurant’s produce from Café Gratitude’s Be Love farm in Pleasant Valley.
Seafood will be very, very local. “We’ve made friends with many of the fishermen here at the Berkeley docks and at Half Moon Bay,” said Angelo. “We’ll try to use things that show up at the dock in the afternoon, and we’ll have them in the kitchen at 4 or 5 p.m. … It’s not just farm to table, it’s boat to table.”
Other specialty ingredients will be imported from Sicily. Angelo hopes that by staying true to the ingredients and flavors of the region, he’ll preserve an historic cooking style. “These dishes often get lost in translation,” he said. “The heirloom part of the recipe gets lost when you start substituting one thing for another.”
The problem with these substitutions, Angelo said, is that diners will “see something that’s not supposed to be that way, but you don’t know any better because you don’t know what it is supposed to be like. [The result is that] the culture goes away with the food. We want our recipes to taste like heirloom recipes.”
Alongside these traditional recipes will be a 100% Italian wine list. The vast majority of these wines, said Angelo, will come from Naples and Sicily. “These wines are finally getting respect,” he said. “And they’re all wines that are [geared toward] serving with food.”
Agrodolce’s bar will start with just beer and wine; in three to four months, it’ll add cocktails. Like the food menu, the cocktail list will be heavily Sicilian, with drinks heavy on citrus and anise flavors. It will also offer vino ca’pessica, a Sicilian-style “sangria that’s not really sangria,” said Angelo. “It’s a sweetish wine drink with peaches.” Wines will be half off during the restaurant’s two happy hours (4 to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close), which will also offer affordable appetizers in the $5-6 range.
All of this emphasis on Sicilian food and drink is more than just a family tradition. It’s also likely a good business decision — the East Bay is full of Italian restaurants and the focus will help Agrodolce stand out from the pack. And this move is following a burgeoning trend towards regionalism in high-end Mexican, Italian and Asian dining. In the last year, we’ve seen two Oaxacan restaurants open in Uptown, watched James Syhabout shift his focus from general Asian street food to the cuisine of Laos at Hawker Fare, and eaten some magnificent Northern Italian dishes at Belotti. Dopo on Piedmont Avenue changed its menu to an entirely Sicilian dishes last spring, and Gio’s down the street on Shattuck (formerly Giovanni) will also serve primarily Sicilian pizzas.
Angelo insists that his restaurant will be very different from his neighbors. “There’s no other place like it — right now.”
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