By Michelle Chan, for the Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune –
Truth be told, most people would not string the words “Alameda,” “shopping mall” and “dining hot spot” together in a sentence. But the denizens of this island, known more for its sleepy charm and homey neighborhood eateries, have discovered Trabocco. In droves.
We first visited Trabocco on a Wednesday at 8 p.m., expecting to have a quiet low-key dinner in, well, an Alameda shopping mall. Instead, we found the house and bar packed, with a lively and bustling energy. The restaurant was noisy with the chatter of diners, the din and sizzle of an open kitchen, and the wine-propelled easy laughter of large tables. The sleek interior, with its gleaming subway tile and Edison light bulbs felt on-trend, while the sparkle of glass and a shimmering fishnet-inspired ceiling sculpture lent a bit of glamour.
The unexpected hit of midweek vivacity commanded a change of mindset — so I immediately complied by ordering a cocktail ($10). Trabocco’s signature cocktail list includes eight enticing options, which mix spirits from Alameda-based St. George Spirits with distinctly Italian intentions. Think Hangar 1 Buddha’s Hand vodka with limoncello and rosemary — The Citronella — or St. George’s superlative raspberry liqueur with prosecco for an Alameda Royale.
The kitchen follows the same philosophy of blending local ingredients with authentic Italian preparations and California sensibilities. We started with one of the four salads, the Invernale ($10). True to its name, it was based on a blend of winter greens, with walnuts, grapes, and Gorgonzola. The highlight of the dish was the addition of sliced grilled pears, which added a succulent and smoky element.
The antipasti menu included some familiar options — beef carpaccio with lemon and olive oil, topped with Parmesan and arugula ($11); and burrata with prosciutto and pencil-thin breadsticks ($13). We had the fried calamari ($11), which was light and had just the right level of snap and tenderness, but it was underseasoned and a little flat. The side of piquant garlicky tomato sauce provided all the flavor.
In contrast, the baccala e peperoni was a standout ($9). American diners may be forgiven for thinking that other countries, such as Spain, are masters of the salt cod, but it is said that in Naples one can eat a different salt cod dish every day of the year. Trabocco’s version is wonderfully light, almost fluffy in texture; the saltiness of the cod is balanced by the sweetness of red pepper. Everything is coated in a sumptuous cloak of olive oil and lemon, roasted and served on a bed of crispy yet melty polenta. We’ll definitely be back for that. The salt cod was on the “stuzzichini” or snacks menu; other options include lamb skewers with grilled bread ($11) and saffron-marinated ahi tuna tartare ($12).
Of course, the restaurant has to offer seafood — a trabocco is a distinctive wooden fishing contraption found along Italy’s lower Adriatic coast — and it follows the Monterey Bay Aquarium sustainability standards. The Spaghetti del Trabocco ($19) is a very generous portion of pasta topped with shrimp, scallops, mussels, baby octopus and clams. The assertive shellfish is balanced with the sweetness and acidity of tomato, and the bold ocean flavor is typical of Italian seafood dishes.
Other pasta options include the Chitarrine al Cacao, a cocoa-powder infused housemade pasta with rabbit ragu ($18) and a few vegetarian options, such as the butternut squash ravioli with walnuts and sage brown butter ($15). Vegetarians can also do well with the wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas. The pizzas are expertly done, with puffy, tender crusts sporting just the right salt and char.
We couldn’t resist trying the Mezzo e Mezzo ($15), a tennis racquet-shaped creation that is half-pizza, half-calzone. We definitely preferred the Margherita pizza half with its zesty, fresh sauce and slightly chewy fior di latte mozzarella; the calzone side was blander and doughier, with vast pockets of ricotta and waterlogged mushrooms.
Carnivores will be profoundly gratified by the several meaty selections, including the Flintstones-proportioned Niman Ranch pork chop ($29). There is a purist philosophy at play here: Simply grilled over a wood fire, the pork chop was smoky, juicy and didn’t need any embellishment. It came with tiny broccolini and roasted potatoes with sliced almonds — and ultimately, a take-home box. The portion size makes it hard to save room for dessert, but we managed to taste an airy zabaglione ($6) and a dense, creamy panna cotta ($7), which shined with the natural sweetness of milk.
The cuisine of Abruzzo is well represented (for example: the gnocchi, the baccala, saffron and quintessential lamb skewers) — and for good reason. Chef Giuseppe Naccarelli was born in Abruzzo, and he received his culinary training and opened his first trattoria there. Before opening Trabocco with his wife, Christine, he spent the past 19 years at the Il Fornaio empire as executive chef.
It’s truly a family affair: Christine Naccarelli (and often their daughter) works the front of the house, while Giuseppe presides over the kitchen and greets incoming customers with a hearty “Buona sera” over the curved marble bar. The staff, many of whom are Italian, are professional, efficient and warm, and somehow the combination of it all makes it feel as if they — and you — are part of the family, too.