Review of Trabocco Kitchen and Cocktails

by Derk Richardson, Alameda Magazine –

A Taste of Abruzzo: High-toned Italian newcomer with Il Fornaio roots turns heads with dishes, cocktails, and décor.

Alameda has a way of keeping its pleasures to itself. It’s a big part of the Island City’s mystique. In the case of Trabocco Kitchen and Cocktails, the treasure hunt is made more difficult for off-islanders, at least initially, by the restaurant’s location within the maze of the South Shore Center. Robin and I are not regular patrons of the shopping complex, so on our first visit, we found ourselves prowling the acres of asphalt that surround the mall and peering for signage. But once we found Trabocco—situated in South Shore’s Center Court, semi-cordoned off from the outside world by Kohl’s, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Beverly’s, Old Navy, and T.J. Maxx—it became clear that the spacious Italian eatery has the right stuff to break out of Alameda’s charming geo-cultural citadel.

The charisma begins with design. Trabocco occupies 4,700 square feet, but in his ambitious redesign for the November 2013 opening, San Francisco architect Lev Weisbach parsed the enormous space into distinct and alluring areas that include a 90-seat dining room, a 30-seat bar, a 56-seat outdoor patio (enclosed and heated during the winter), a 16-seat private wine room, and an open kitchen with counter seating that faces a wood-fired oven. The high-concept décor features bare-wood-topped tables in various configurations (booths, communal, twos, and fours), a copper-clad fireplace, and a meticulous lighting scheme of spots, shades, pendants, and, hanging from the high dining-room ceiling, diaphanous webs of tiny bulbs that look like sparkling nets.

That last whimsical grace note, along with the fishing-themed photos on the west wall, ties directly to the homeland of chef Giuseppe Naccarelli, who co-owns Trabocco with his wife, Christine. Naccarelli hails from Italy’s Abruzzo region, where the Adriatic coast is dotted with trabucchi, elaborate wooden platforms with antenna-like arms from which fishing nets are suspended. Raised in the mountain village of Palombaro and schooled in cooking, management, and hospitality at the Istituto Professionale Alberghiero di Stato in Roccaraso, Naccarelli operated a small trattoria in Guardiagrele, before moving to Los Angeles, meeting Christine, beginning a 19-year career with Il Fornaio, and, in 1999, settling to raise a family in Alameda.

On both of our dinner visits, Naccarelli made the rounds through the dining room, stopping to chat at each table. His personable manner informed the service, as well, especially from our first-night server, Erica, who took note that we’d be sharing dishes and delivered on her promise to pace them. Her cheerful demeanor compensated for the cramped quarters and overlapping conversations along the wall where we sat. Terrific cocktails ($10)—a cognac sidecar for Robin, a bitter Italian (St. George Breaking & Entering bourbon, Carpano Antica, and Luxardo cherries) for me—and glasses of Rock Wall wines (Jesse’s Zin and Super Alamedan, $8 on tap) helped take the edge off, as well. On our second visit we further tested the cocktail menu, and the Double Barreled Negroni (St. George dry rye gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth) and the Citronella (Hangar 1 Buddha’s Hand Citron vodka, limoncello, rosemary, and egg white) confirmed the Trabocco bartenders’ stellar mixology abilities.

The Trabocco menu is divided into seven sections: antipasti, stuzzichini (small-plate starters), insalata, pizzeria, pasta e risotto, pesce (fish), carne e pollame (meat and poultry), and contorni (sides), with nearly 40 dishes in all. A separate dolci menu offers a half-dozen classic desserts (panna cotta, flourless chocolate cake, crème brûlée, tiramisu, zabaglione, gelato). Two people could mix and match their way through a score of meals and never repeat themselves. We eschewed the house-made pastas, despite the appeal of chitarrine al cacao (cocoa powder pasta with rabbit ragu, $18), ravioli con coda (stuffed with braised oxtail, $16), and agnolotti di zucca (filled with butternut squash and walnuts, with brown-butter sage sauce, $15), and we gazed longingly at nearby plates bountifully piled with gnocchi in a squash, mushroom, and white wine sauce ($15) and a robust fettuccine Bolognese ($15).

But we had more than enough to eat at each dinner. The first started with a stuzzichini of baccala e peperoni, roasted salt-cod marinated with roasted bell peppers served atop crispy polenta, $9, which had a great bite and crunch, though we didn’t get the point of the presentation in three ramekins. A gorgeous fagiolata salad ($9) followed. Very lightly coated with lemon-anchovy dressing, the vibrant jumble of lentils, garbanzos, farro, cannellini beans, quinoa, carrots, and cherry tomatoes was ultimately all texture, begging for some sort of spice or herb to pull out the flavors. The high point of the meal was the brodetto alla vastese ($25), a vividly tomato-red seafood stew with clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and white fish. (To my chagrin but Robin’s delight, there was no octopus, as listed). Even divided into two shallow white bowls, the portions seemed generous.

For our second dinner, we started with a pizza Cristina ($16), a thin-crust gem with a slightly charred edge and a pitch-perfect topping combination of mushrooms, buffalo mozzarella, arugula, prosciutto, shaved Parmesan, and truffle olive oil. Despite having to cut it ourselves with oversized scissors (a regrettable trend), it was the best pizza we’d had out in ages. We look forward to trying the zucchini/eggplant, artichoke/mushroom, sausage/broccoli di rape, and Margherita versions.

As a main dish, I was excited about the rotisserie special of the day, roasted rabbit. But that’s where the meal veered into Bizarro-Trabocco mode. Our server—who had brought our cocktails 15 minutes apart and went MIA for long spells—neglected to tell us the rabbit came with sautéed spinach even though we ordered a side of same ($5). We gladly would have opted for roasted baby root vegetables ($6) or green beans ($4) or eggplant and pepper ragu ($5). We waited for more than 20 minutes for the rabbit to appear. Robin quipped that they must have had to go out and hunt for poor Thumper. When it finally arrived, the deceptively delicious crispy skin and savory brown gravy could not redeem the leathery, overcooked meat on the bone.

One off night in service and one sadly executed dish, however, do not dim our enthusiasm for one of the best high-end reasons to venture through the Tube across the bridges to the southern terminus of Park Street, or for Alamedans to proudly savor their latest, not-long-to-be-secret culinary paragon.