The team behind the new iteration of Berkeley’s Corso, Via del Corso: From left, chef de cuisine Massimo Orlando, general manager Marco Penitenti and owner Peter Chastain. Photo: Via del Corso

In November 2020, North Berkeley’s popular Tuscan trattoria, Corso, permanently closed. Co-owners Roscoe Skipper and Wendy Brucker told Nosh that, although they had tried, they could not overcome the financial strain caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Many Berkeleyans grieved the loss of the 12-year-old Italian restaurant, a favorite upscale dining spot for celebrations and intimate meals.

So, imagine the community’s surprise when the Corso Instagram account lit up again on Tuesday morning, after being dormant since June 2020, to announce that Corso is reopening.

The Instagram post was short and to the point: “Corso is coming back as Via del Corso! We are planning to reopen under new management in June. Stay tuned,” it read.

New owner, Berkeley-born Peter Chastain, said that after posting on Instagram, he got an immediate response from people wanting to know more.

“Our phones were just blowing up,” Chastain said. “We heard from lots of Corso clientele wondering if we’ll keep their dishes.”

Corso in Berkeley.
To the disappointment of many East Bay diners, Corso announced its closure in November 2020. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

More on that later, but first a little background on the new management team behind Via del Corso.

Chastain calls himself a lifer in the restaurant industry, and if you’ve been dining out in the East Bay over the last few decades, his name will probably ring a bell.

For 21 years, he was the executive chef-owner of Prima in Walnut Creek, which he co-ran with wine director John Rittmaster after purchasing the restaurant from its original owners in 2005. Before Prima, Chastain helped open Jim and Laura Maser’s Mazzini Trattoria on Telegraph and was the executive chef at John Solomon’s Ristorante Venezia on University, both in Berkeley. He also spent some time in kitchens at Hilton International in Japan, Clift Four Season Hotel, St. Francis Yacht Club, Paula Le Duc Fine Catering and so on. But Chastain spent the longest time, and bolstered his culinary reputation, at Prima. According to Diablo, Prima under Chastain and Rittmaster “served as the gold standard for fine dining in downtown Walnut Creek.”

But last July, the two closed Prima. As with the former Corso owners, Chastain credits COVID-19 for ending the restaurant.

“We didn’t know where this was going,” Chastain said. “We expected to reopen.” But when the restaurant — a “high-end, white table cloth” dining destination — couldn’t pivot to takeout and delivery, the owners were unable to keep their 50 employees or pay the growing number of outstanding invoices. What’s more, they couldn’t agree on terms with their landlord, and so he and Rittmaster had to make the hard decision to close.

Who’s behind the new Corso?

In some ways, Via del Corso will be a second coming for Prima. The upcoming restaurant’s other team members are two longtime Prima staffers: Chef de cuisine Massimo Orlando and general manager Marco Penitenti.

Originally from Emilia in northern Italy, Orlando cooked at Prima for 17 years. Chastain credits the chef for making Prima a dining destination.

“Prima wouldn’t have existed without Massimo,” he said, listing all the dishes that the versatile Italian could make: fresh pasta, pastries, braised dishes and so on. “We have a lot of confidence in him.”

Penitenti — another native Italian — was also integral to Prima’s success. Talking to Chastain, you get the sense that he relied deeply on his resourceful GM, who has a knack for “being able to fix things.”

“He knows everybody in the community,” Chastain said of Penitenti. “I give him about 90 days to a year to be well-known in Berkeley. He’s pretty charming; he’s one of my besties.”

When asked why, after just going through a painful closure, the trio would want to start a new restaurant in Berkeley, chef Orlando — who was within earshot of Chastain — jokingly exclaimed, “Because we’re out of our minds!”

When asked why, after just going through a painful closure, the trio would want to start a new restaurant in Berkeley, Orlando jokingly exclaimed, “Because we’re out of our minds!”

While it might take a little bit of crazy to re-enter the restaurant industry in the midst of the pandemic, Chastain said he and his team are hopeful that we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

“We watched COVID go by, and it’s starting to be over,” Chastain said. “I think it’ll take us till June to open this. We hope that a lot of vaccinations plus summer weather and so on will get us to 25-50% indoor dining.”

Chastain said the Via del Corso will open for indoor service at whatever capacity is allowed when they finally open their doors, but he also plans to build a parklet outside and offer takeout and delivery.

Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again, but it seems in this case he’s wrong. Chastain, who lives in Oakland now, has a deep affection for his hometown and the restaurant that he’ll soon take over.

“Aside from Prima, Corso was my favorite restaurant. I was born on Eunice and Shattuck,” he explained. He and former Corso chef Wendy Brucker are longtime friends from high school, and they’ve kept a friendship over the years. “I came [to Corso] a lot. Wendy and Roscoe asked me to chef it, but then they decided to walk away,” he said. “So when the opportunity came up, I knew this is exactly what I want to do.”

Chastain said Brucker and Skipper have “been nothing but supportive” with his decision to take over the restaurant; they introduced him to the landlord and advocated on his behalf.

“Wendy gave me an Italian jar of salt and sage inside; Roscoe’s consulting with me and been giving me the ins and outs of how Corso went,” he said.

What’s going to be on the menu?

So, back to the menu. Chastain said the trio are still formulating the menu, but Via del Corso will be central Italian-focused, as much of his culinary purview has been from that region, but unlike Corso, Via del Corso will not be a Florentine trattoria.

“We don’t really want to say that we’re 100% Tuscan.” In fact, the name Via del Corso hints at the scope of regions the menu will touch.

“Via del Corso is a big boulevard in Rome where all the streets from the different regions go into it,” Chastain said, explaining that he doesn’t want to be locked into just one style of cooking.

As for whether Via del Corso will resurrect some Corso menu staples, the answer is yes.

“We’ll reinvent lots of what we did before, but hang it around what Corso had,” said Chastain. “We’ll definitely have steak alla Fiorentina.” He said they’ll also bring back Corso’s famous Pollo al Burro, or chicken cooked in butter.

“Massimo needs to think hard about what he wants to do, and we’ll go from there.”

Via del Corso aims to open in June. Stay tuned on Nosh for updates as its opening nears. Via del Corso will be at 1788 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley

Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...