A little past midnight every day, Franco Camboli rolls into Borgo Italia Bar and Caffé, rubs the sleep out of his eyes, and prepares himself for a long night of working dough and whipping cream. As the old Dunkin’ Donuts commercials used to say, “Time to make the doughnuts.”
At Borgo Italia (499 9th St.), Old Oakland’s new Italian restaurant, the doughnuts in question aren’t your standard powdered-sugar-dusted or jelly-filled affairs. Instead, customers can choose from a wide array of delicate Italian pastries — the same kinds that Camboli prepared at his family’s pastry shop in Tuscany for thirty years: ciambelli, a kind of doughnut made from choux pastry that’s sliced in half and filled with cream, and little Italian-style beignets.
If you read early previews of Borgo Italia, you might have gotten the impression that the pastry program was little more than an afterthought, but no — the gleaming pastry case is probably the first thing you’ll notice when you walk in. By the time the restaurant opens at 7 a.m., it’s filled to the brim with a selection of treats that would be the envy of many full-service pastry shops.
There are assorted fruit tartlets, rice pudding cakes (one of a few gluten-free options), little glass jars of panna cotta and tiramisu (made with house-made cookies rather than pre-bought ladyfingers), and other goodies that vary from day to day.
But the standout is Italy’s take on the cream-filled doughnut. Each ciambella
($5) has the wrinkly appearance and the light but slightly chewy texture of a French cruller, and Camboli’s cream filling — a family recipe, available in a several different flavors — is magic: super-smooth, airy, and neither too heavy nor too sweet.
The basic white cream is a mix of whipping cream and homemade pastry cream. Camboli tops the doughnuts filled with this cream with a bit of caramelized sugar, creating a combination of flavors he describes as “latte e miele
”: milk and honey.
Meanwhile, the beignets ($1.50 each) are mini versions of the ciambelli
, except that the cream is enclosed inside the dough — cream puffs, basically. These, too, are available in a number of different flavors. I especially enjoyed the intense espresso oomph of a version filled with coffee cream and the rich egginess of the eggnog flavor.
Camboli is one of the restaurant’s co-owners, so you’d think he has enough on his plate without also staying up all night making pastries. After all, he oversees Borgo Italia’s entire food program — the pizza dough, the various fresh pasta dishes, and so forth — and during the day he’s still baking other cakes for the dessert menu. Fortunately, Camboli said he has a capable kitchen staff that’s able to pick up the slack so he can catch a quick nap in the afternoon. And the restaurant recently cut back its hours so that the pastry guru at least gets Sundays off now.
Regardless, the number of hours Camboli works each day seems patently unsustainable, but for now he’s pulling it off — fueled, he said, by “the passion for the food.”
Borgo Italia is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday to Saturday, so it’s also one of the only late-night takeaway pastry options around town.