I'd been hearing good things about Riva Cucina via my friend Naushon, my most reliable source for all things food and restaurant-related, so we decided to check it out on Thursday night. Riva Cucina is still the new kid on the block -- it was opened by Massi and Jennifer Boldrini this past April. The restaurant is located in West Berkeley in the slightly surreal Aquatic Park Center -- the center and grounds are so tidy and polished that I wondered briefly whether we had taken a wrong turn on our way to the restaurant and somehow ended up in Stepford, CT.
According to Oakland Magazine, the brick and steel building that houses the restaurant used to be a spice factory and it still has a bit of a slightly chilly industrial feeling due to the high ceilings and exposed ceiling. They keep the lighting quite low (you really need that little candle on the table to see your food!) and the dark wood furniture gives it a slightly cold feeling which is softened slightly by the enormous maroon velvet curtains that hang from the ceiling to divide one room (which I assume is for private parties) from the rest of the restaurant. Miniature cactuses and succulents in tiny pots grace each table - ours was a baby jade plant.
The hostess was an extremely friendly young woman with long red hair and our waitress was also pleasant and attentive in a casual way.
She brought us large glasses of lemon water and a plate of good bread with the most amazing rosemary infused olive oil. It was really addictive stuff - luckily, they offered to bring us more after we'd polished off the first round.
We ordered the:
Insalata da Bietole ($9) - roasted organic red and gold beets, romaine lettuce, red onion, in a red wine vinaigrette.
The salad was very good - the dressing balanced the diced beets perfectly and the whole effect was delicate and yummy. Our only criticism was that we'd have preferred the whole affair to be a bit less chopped as the cubed beets and sliced lettuce put me in mind of a Del Monte fruit cup.
Tagliatelle Bolognese ($13) - Fresh pasta with traditional pork, beef and tomato sauce, and parmigiano.
The fresh noodles and hearty sauce (which was pretty much all meat) were simple and tasty, as they should be.
Papardelle Alle Castagne ($14) - Chestnut pasta with porcini and crimini mushrooms, red onion, butter, and ricotta salata.
Although this sounded both interesting and appealing on the menu, we were both disappointed by it. Although the quality of the food was high, the dish was just a little too spare - it needed some more sauce - more onions or some cream or both... The chestnut noodles were kind of mealy/pasty tasting. Eating them reminded me why I don't really like whole wheat pasta - it's too reminiscent of cardboard. Although the mushrooms were delicious - moist, flavorful and woodsy - the combination needed something more to tie it together and give it some life. Even the cheese it was topped with - ricotta salata - was too bland and not assertive enough.
Despite the reasonable portion sizes, we were too full to order dessert (I blame the bread and rosemary olive oil) though they had some nice offerings.
Our meal cost $48 with tax and 20% tip.
I'd recommend giving Riva Cucina a try.
Web site: http://www.rivacucina.com/
800 Heinz Avenue, Berkeley, CA
Monday - Friday: Breakfast 8 - 11:30, Lunch 11:30 - 3:30, Dinner 5 - 9
Thursday - Friday: Aperitiva (Happy Hour) 4-5:30
Saturday: Dinner: 5-9