The small, cozy and comfortable space does a great job enhancing Belli Osteria, a beautiful tavern. The Shattuck Avenue restaurant is located near many other gourmet restaurants, but it features some of the best Italian cuisine around because of its focus on pasta.
Executive chef, Paul Oprescu, had a Romanian childhood involving hunting, farming and sausage making, and he dreamt of owning an affordable pasta place. He even traveled around Northern Italy before leaving his job as a teacher to develop his ideal restaurant. Belli Osteria focuses on artisanal pastas and raviolis made in house with local and, whenever possible, organic ingredients. The pasta dishes range from salmon ravioli in creamy seafood broth to ricotta gnocchi with golden chanterelles.
My first taste of the beautiful tavern started with a salad with arugula, Mt. Tam cheese, red flame grapes, walnut puree, orange blossom honey, guanciale and cabernet sauvignon. This salad was one of the best salads I have tasted, because it was not too sweet like some other fruity salads, nor was it too rich and creamy with too much sauce. The creamier and slightly nutty and sweet walnut puree offset the slightly bitter taste of the arugula. The dewy and light sweetness of honey, along with its floral note, balanced the nuttiness of the walnut puree. If the dish had contained normal honey, the honey and walnuts’ sweetness would have been too strong. The combination gives a three-dimensional taste of orange blossom, nuttiness and dewy honey. In addition, Mt. Tam cheese was a stronger ingredient, which contrasted with the lightness of the arugula, walnut puree and orange blossom and honey combination. This created a surprising explosion of flavors on the palate. The successful mixture of so many ingredients in salad is rare, and Belli Osteria did an excellent job of ensuring flavor distinction as well as balanced mixture.
The squid-ink linguini with surume squid, pei mussels and gulf shrimp in butter and white wine was even more impressive, because the fresh seafood flavors were so distinct. I have not been to a single Berkeley restaurant that serves squid-ink linguini, and Belli Osteria’s version served a delicious seafood array that erupted into a refreshing taste that reminded me of eating fresh fish at Pier 39 in San Francisco. The flavor enveloped my taste buds and lingered even after I had finished my pasta. The restaurant gave a generous portion of mussels, and I even had some left to eat after I finished the pasta.
For dessert, I ordered the coffee panna cotta with chocolate shavings, given my coffee obsession. The panna cotta was rich and creamy — but not milky and creamy enough compared to other panna cottas I have eaten. The texture was thick and could have been smoother. A successful panna cotta is silky smooth with a slight wobble, and this panna cotta’s texture was closer to Greek yogurt than to pudding. On the other hand, the coffee taste was just right, with a nice dark-espresso flavor that was not too sugary. Overall, the dessert produced a balanced and neutral sweet taste that was the perfect end to the meal.
Belli Osteria was overall an excellent restaurant, and I will without a doubt be returning to try more dishes. The task of standing out as an Italian restaurant is difficult, but the beautiful tavern impressed me, even though I have tried many gourmet Italian restaurants in Berkeley. When a place focuses on one type of food, such as pasta, the meticulousness and effort need to shine through, and they did here.
Contact Annie Chang at [email protected].