Belli Osteria is a restaurant near the southeast corner of Shattuck and University avenues that specializes in ravioli. The ravioli is made daily by hand, and each ravioli is unique for each type of sauce and filling. The menu changes weekly, as the chefs are always coming up with new ideas and eager to realize classic Italian dishes. The passion for making quality and delicious pasta, which is held by all of the restaurant’s chefs, came from Paul Opresco, who both owns and cooks at Belli. His restaurant aims to offer in Downtown Berkeley the skill, the craft and the love of ravioli that he came across in Italy.
Two years ago, Oprescu, a Montessori schoolteacher turned chef, went to Italy to travel and to study food. He stayed in Bologna for a stage (guest work) at Drogheria, one of the famous ravioli houses in Bologna, a city recognized for its fresh pastas and raviolis. Oprescu noted that in Bologna, ravioli is not drenched in sauce or overwhelmed with pungent flavors like garlic, onion or tomato. “Instead,” Oprescu says, “value is put on the balance of various elements and local ingredients.”
Many elements compose ravioli: color, bite, taste, thickness, sauce, filling, freshness and consistency of the pasta. The source of the ingredients is just as important as the balance among them in any given recipe, given that in Italy, what seems like one simple ingredient in one city is another city’s specialty.
When it comes to food in Italy, every city has a specialty. Siena is known for its saltless bread. The mountain town of Carrara is known for its lard, cured by rubbing it down with spices and sealing it for months in a marble tomb. Pionella, the city Pope Pius II patronized, specializes in cheeses cultured with mold from the soil. Genova has pesto, Napoli pizza. “Take the salami and hams in Bologna, for instance,” says Paul Oprescu, head chef of Belli Osteria in Downtown Shattuck. “The complexity and know-how that go into making them is far beyond most of what we have here in the United States.”
Oprescu and his business partner, Damien Morrison, started with the idea of making fresh pasta. Oprescu and Morrison had become friends by playing soccer together. Morrison practiced as an attorney in San Francisco until a downturn in his legal practice gave him the drive to pursue pasta-making professionally. The farmers markets provided a great venue to sell homemade pasta, but the competition there was fierce. Oprescu was making his pasta by hand while the other vendors applied machinery. After nine months of trial and error, Oprescu and Damien return to their initial plan of opening a restaurant in the East Bay. Opening one in Downtown Shattuck, given its pricing and popularity, seemed unlikely.
Oprescu based his restaurant off the Italian model of an Osteria. “Osteria” essentially means “neighborhood restaurant,” and they are known for their quick and casual service, homemade food and, Oprescu notes, “good wine.” When it comes to quality food in Italy, young people eat at their parents’ houses every day of the week until they start families of their own. Lunches are eaten lightly because at the end of day, one can expect a good, hearty homemade dinner.
When Italians do eat out at a restaurant instead of a pizza place, a cafe or a bakery, they order multiple courses, take their time and lounge. Dinner may be an activity that takes up the whole evening. Oprescu hopes to promote this sort of experience, enjoyed by people all over the world, through his homemade ravoli restaurant, Belli Osteria. Like many other new local and organic restaurants in Berkeley, Belli Ostetria wants to be affordable and high in quality. It’s a struggle, but it’s worth it. Oprescu believes that getting local, organic ingredients and paying his staff members well are essential to being a part of the neighborhood.
Oprescu is also excited to be in Downtown Berkeley. The restaurant gets noticed by locals and passers-by. Liviu Opresco, Paul Opresco’s brother, helped design the vibrant interior of Belli. Handmade carpentry, matchstick red walls and original artwork make for a welcoming and refined atmosphere.
At Belli Osteria, one finds in the ravioli the same degree of experimentation and craftsmanship that local breweries are regularly celebrated for. In various dishes, the chefs aim to produce key culinary signatures such as sweet, savory, salty, juicy, better, tangy or spicy — but in important new ways. For instance, they source most of their produce, meats and seafood not from distant lands but from California. They walk around Berkeley Bowl and the local farmers markets for inspiration. Between lunch and dinner, they attempt new things, prep dishes and try one another’s creations.
“When it comes to making the menu,” Opresco says, “we do not have a top-down approach. Instead, ours is very open.”
Additionally, the kitchen at Belli Osteria approaches Italian quality unconventionally. The staff maintains the same standards for quality but don’t fret about mixing distinct “ethnic” palates. A single ravioli dish, such as the pasta with wild boar braised in cacao and wine, might have original Italian ingredients, Spanish spices and French preparation methods and be savory like soul food. Although traditional “ethnic” palates inform their choices, the young and energetic chefs do not feel bound to them. Instead, they try achieving the tastes, the textures and the harmonies that are desirable. Another original dish is the black ravioli with crab and scallop filling. The black comes from squid ink, which makes the pasta briny and soft.
Chefs at Belli also love making Italian classics. Given its simplicity, sheep’s milk, a little olive oil, salt and pepper, cacio e pepe was a dish for Roman soldiers. The gnocchi is served with tomatoe sauce, fresh basil and parmigiano.
If you are fortunate enough to have been in Italy, then the smells and tastes of the food at Belli Osteria will take you back there. They are truly gratifying. Oprescu and the other chefs are not just chefs; they are artists.
Belli Osteria is located at 2016 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA 94704.