Scattered throughout the East Bay are culinary hublets that in former, cornier times would have been called restaurant rows. Each maintains its own characteristic set of moods, foods, memes, and themes.
One such mini-mecca awaits you in West-ish Berkeley, where on a single block no fewer than five restaurants have opened over the last few years with barely a piccolo-peep of fanfare. The newest spot on the block opened in January. Its Italian-born owner-chef makes hearty manicotti, bodacious gnocchi, and living-in-luxury Alfredo sauce, but chances are you've never heard of Luca Cucina Italiana with its dramatic open kitchen and coffee-in-the-clouds tiramisu.
A few blocks east of famous Fourth Street, flanking the flatlands, this span of storefront restaurants is no secret. Hidden? Hardly. San Pablo Avenue between Addison Street and University Avenue is home not just to brand-new Luca (whose $3 meatball side order is the deal of any day) but also to a taqueria, an old-school doughnut shop, a solar-powered hipster-pleasing café, a local-legend pizza pub, not one but two Indian restaurants, and not one but two well-stocked ethnic grocery-delis.
Let's call it Add-U. Pretty it's not. Traffic roars past these storefronts nonstop. This is not dappled-sunlight, songbird-soundtracked, eat-alfresco territory. But Priya South & North Indian Cuisine serves multicourse thali meals, dosas, tandoori meats, lunch and dinner buffets, and more. Chaat & Curries offers d and curries, of course, along with Nepali dishes, wraps, and six different kinds of naan, including chili-pesto-garlic "bullet" bread.
Rock-bottom prices and warmhearted service make Little Pablo Taqueria a busted-economy Camelot; one of its sunny golden $2.99 chile rellenos is almost big enough for two meals and the under-$6 super burritos are as big as men's size-ten shoes. The menu at hipsterrific, all-organic, solar-powered but spendy Local 123 features artisanal coffees such as hauntingly smoky Sulawesi-grown Tuarca with the type of exotic flavor similes — burnt caramel, black cherry, violet — usually reserved for fine wines. Lanesplitter Pizza & Pub is as warm and welcoming as your favorite coat. Serving freshly fried and colorful classics without a single sprinkle of pretense, Rainbow Donuts knows its place, which some would call a seedy stretch of sidewalk.
In a corner space formerly occupied by the late lamented Flavah Island, Luca's owner-chef Luca Rocci cooks dishes representing many parts of his native land, from breaded-and-pan-fried chicken Milanese to yolky zabaglione to spunky-smooth penne with vodka sauce. Lunchtime sandwiches include a juicy, multilayered, and surprisingly filling eggplant parmigiana and a sink-'em-quick sub starring those hefty beef-and-pork meatballs. Customize your pasta meal all day by mixing and matching your choice of nine different sauces (including the seldom-seen sharp-meets-mellow tomato-and-cream cardinale) with six different noodle types (including the wide magic carpets of pastadom, pappardelle).
Order at the register, then wait to be served at one of those tables that command sweeping views of San Pablo Avenue through floor-to-ceiling windows and into the open kitchen where flames flare from Rocci's flying pans.
"That's the wine burning," Rocci said. Having grown up in Molise, southwest of Rome, he worked in hotel kitchens before arriving in the United States, where he spent nearly fourteen years waiting tables while wanting to open a restaurant of his own.
"I come from a very poor country. My family makes most of these dishes," he said, indicating a whiteboard menu whose classics are augmented by daily specials. "I learned from my family; I began working in kitchens as a very young kid. I like everything about cooking. You make people happy, and at the same time you're learning about flavors."
He has learned well. A tangy beet salad is a perfect, playful counterpoint to pasta. A fried-polenta side dish — popular in Milan, where Rocci worked for years — comprises big, satisfying, savory slabs, crisp on the outside and yieldingly soft on the inside. The same earthy honesty that permeates the polenta carries through to the sauces Rocci creates in that hot kitchen. The red ones sing of summer. The cream-kissed ones make you feel cared for.
Both kinds make you want to mop up every drop. But while free bread is standard at most Italian restaurants, at Luca bread costs a buck.
Another downside on both of our visits was the music, an endless Frank Sinatra loop whose volume, on the first visit, we asked Luca's lone server to lower. Surprisingly, she refused — because the control panel was situated behind another table and to access its dials, she would have to ask the diners at that table to stand up for a moment. Second visit: same music, same volume. We didn't bother to ask.
Icons on Luca's menu denote vegetarian dishes. Rocci, who is gluten-intolerant himself, uses gluten-free pasta on request. Plans are underway to make the restaurant 100 percent organic. Let's hope this happens before Add-U's obscurity dooms Luca to poor Flavah Island's fate.
Think you're too good to sup on San Pablo Avenue? Consider takeaway. A whole household could visit Add-U in a single minivan. Each person could pick a different restaurant and come back with a completely different, snugly wrapped-for-transit meal. One bears beef-tongue burritos from Little Pablo. Another has heavenly house-baked chocolate cookies from Local 123. Yet another has a thin-crusted pepperoni from Lanesplitter. Two bear baingan bharta, but one comes from Priya and the other comes from Chaat & Curries. Yet another has kebabs from the Middle East Market and flan from Mi Tierra Market.
Could you ask for more diversity? You shouldn't, considering how many towns have hardly any non-fast-food restaurants at all. But if you did ask for more, within a two-block radius of Add-U lie Casa Latina, La Mission, Acme Bar, Bombay Spice House, Cheese Steak Shop, Halal Food Market, and Gaumenkitzel. It's a small world, after all.