Italy, By Land and Sea

By Luke Tsai, East Bay Express –

Trabocco brings the coastal cuisine of Abruzzo to a shopping center in Alameda.

On an unseasonably warm April evening, Giuseppe Naccarelli is at our table talking about his grandmother’s baccala recipe — about how when he was a little boy in Abruzzo, his family so poor that every Christmas Eve, for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, six of the fishes were usually salt cod, served in as many different permutations as his frugal nonna could devise.

As far as I can tell, this is Naccarelli’s routine. At Trabocco, the upscale Italian restaurant that the chef opened in an Alameda shopping center last November, he makes his rounds through the dining room, and out onto the covered outdoor patio, every half-hour or so, to greet guests with a hearty “buona sera” and a few moments of small talk. If you imagine a stereotypical gregarious Italian shopkeeper, Naccarelli is pretty much that.

The Alameda South Shore Center isn’t the most picturesque setting, but luckily the restaurant’s designers had the foresight to surround the patio with big planter boxes. Sitting on that patio, with your view of Old Navy obscured by all that lush greenery, and with Naccarelli and his staff chattering away, sometimes in Italian, it’s possible to imagine you’re sitting, if not in Italy, then at least at one of the fancier Italian restaurants in San Francisco or Napa Valley. The prices, too, are more in line with what you’d find in a big-city restaurant.

And the food better than what you’d expect to find in a shopping plaza, just steps away from Applebee’s. Trabocco’s menu focuses on dishes that are characteristic of Naccarelli’s native Abruzzo region, in Central Italy. The most interesting items are appetizers, divided on the menu into antipasto and stuzzichini, which are small plates somewhat akin to Spanish tapas. We began one meal with the aforementioned baccala dish, the one that Naccarelli declared his favorite among his grandmother’s recipes. Presented in three little individual-portion ramekins, the dish consisted of salt cod and roasted red peppers, each portion piled atop a cube of crispy-oozy fried polenta. The salt cod itself was a revelation — tender and flaky in a way that resembled fresh fish more than it did a preserved product, just salty enough, and imbued with a hint of smokiness from the wood fire.

On a different night, we started with an order of polipo e patate (grilled octopus and potato), another stunner of a first course: bite-size segments of tender, well-charred octopus (again, smoky from the wood-fire grill); thinly sliced onion and fennel; and baby potato rounds — all tossed in olive oil and lemon juice. Just bright, pure flavors — Italian simplicity at its finest.

Less successful was a dish described on the menu as “braised pork belly and vegetable ragu,” which led us to expect some lush, slow-cooked, savory thing. Instead, this was dried-out slices of pork served over roasted red peppers coated in an overly-sweet-and-sour sauce.

We skipped the restaurant’s rather extensive pizza section and opted instead to order a couple of Abruzzo-style pasta dishes. The chitarrine featured handmade pasta — infused with the slight earthy bitterness of cocoa powder and cut with a traditional chitarra (or stringed pasta “guitar”) — and a rich, savory ragu with big chunks of rabbit meat. And while the texture of the braised oxtail ravioli’s filling was a little too pasty, taken as a whole — with a drizzle of the tasty tomato-based braising sauce and slices of nutty melted pecorino cheese — the dish was quite delicious.

Naccarelli spent the previous nineteen years working his way up the ranks at the Il Fornaio restaurant chain, whose outlets are often located in shopping plazas just like the one in Alameda. Trabocco is a much more personal project — in everything from the chef’s use of family recipes to the location (he lives in Alameda) to the name, which alludes to a kind of intricate fishing hut that you’ll find at the end of small wooden piers all along the coast of Abruzzo. With its elaborate nets and wood beams, the typical trabocco looks something like a child’s play fort, set up on stilts. The restaurant displays an art installation — a series of bejeweled nets overhead — that’s meant to be a nod to these structures.

Trabocco’s menu leans heavily on the fruits of the sea. Aside from the salt cod and the octopus, there’s usually at least one whole fish option, roasted in the wood fire. The brodetto alla vastese, a seafood stew, featured a delicious tomato-based fish broth that was infused with white wine and whole cloves of garlic cooked soft — it’s meant to be lighter and less tomato-heavy than a cioppino, Naccarelli explained. The stew was loaded with seafood, though the quality was just okay — I wished the scallops had been sweeter, and the fish a little cleaner-tasting.

Better among the entrées, though somewhat exorbitantly priced at $32, was the rotisserie rabbit, one of several rotisserie options that change over the course of the week. Cooked whole on a spit, yet again in a wood fire, the rabbit came cut into three big pieces — a foreleg, a hind leg, and a bacon-wrapped saddle, all fragrant with rosemary and more tender than you might expect. Served with sautéed spinach and mashed potatoes, the dish is tailor-made for the meat-and-potatoes crowd.

It should be noted that Trabocco is only marginally less expensive than the East Bay’s priciest Italian restaurants — places like Oliveto and A16. Even if you skip wine and cocktails, it’s easy for two diners to rack up a bill that approaches $100.

That’s expensive enough to keep me from adding Trabocco to my regular rotation, although the packed house I encountered during each visit makes it clear that the restaurant has filled a niche: It’s one of the fanciest restaurants in Alameda, and unlike many of the East Bay’s higher-end Italian spots, the menu features very little in the way of Cal-Italian fusion. So, despite the inclusion of a few unusual regional specialties, Trabocco is, above all else, accessible.

Read the original article in East Bay Express here.