Bauer slams Oliveto: A body blow? Or a misdirected punch?

| August 26, 2009 | 8 Comments
  • 8 Comments

Oliveto Chef Paul Canales directs the nightly testing of dishes prior to service at the restaurant.
Oliveto Chef Paul Canales directs the nightly “testing” of dishes prior to service at the restaurant. Photo by Carl Costas, Sacramento Bee

Like Hollywood actors, some chefs will claim that they don’t pay attention to the critics. The reality, of course, is that they do.

A good review, in a prominent publication or media outlet, can help launch an upstart restaurant or attract new customers to an old one. A bad one can sink the newcomer or spell trouble for a venerated establishment.

Oliveto, the Italian restaurant in Oakland where I’ve been interning since April, has enjoyed its share of published praise. In her latest edition of the “Food Lover’s Pocket Guide” to San Francisco and the Bay Area, food critic Patricia Unterman writes that Oliveto “sets the standard for Italian cooking in America.”

Last month, the restaurant staff was buoyed by a glowing endorsement by Marcella Hazan, an author of several award winning Italian cookbooks. Writing in The Daily Beast, Hazan said she “would eat at Oliveto in Oakland every day” if she lived in the Bay Area.

Yet those appraisals were quickly overshadowed last week when Michael Bauer, the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, published his first major review of the restaurant since 1996.

In a nine-paragraph column, Bauer said that his last two visits to the restaurant were disappointing. He criticized the service, the atmosphere and the food, and knocked the restaurant down from 3 1/2 stars to two.

“It could be that others have caught up and that Oliveto has slipped,” wrote Bauer, noting the restaurant’s legacy in inspiring other chefs and restaurants across the region.

When I arrived at Oliveto on Friday, the day after the review appeared, I expected the kitchen to be buzzing about the review. Instead, it seemed just like a normal day — busy.

The restaurant’s annual tomato dinners were less than a week away, and so chefs and cooks were scurrying about, making preparations for those elaborate suppers.

Yet as the morning wore on, it became clear that the review was the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Nobody wanted to touch it, but it was pretty hard to ignore.

Server Eric Schwier puts a shine on one of the workmanlike wine glasses at Oliveto.
Server Eric Schwier puts a shine on one of the “workmanlike” wine glasses at Oliveto. Photo by Carl Costas, Sacramento Bee

One server volunteered that customers were asking about it in the cafe on the morning it appeared. Another made a joke about the “workmanlike glasses” he was handling, a reference to one of the swipes in Bauer’s review.

When Chef Paul Canales arrived in the kitchen, he seemed to be as chipper as normal. But then he spent some time with a business manager looking over past reservation lists. Both were trying to determine which night Bauer might have dined (based on the menu items he ordered) and who was cooking on various stations.

“I think I might have been cooking pasta that night,” said Canales. “It might have been me!”

To be sure, it wasn’t a complete surprise that the Chronicle was preparing a negative review. Bauer was a huge fan of former Oliveto Chef Paul Bertolli, who trained Canales and helped establish the restaurant’s reputation. In 1996, Bauer gave Oliveto four stars for food and 3 1/2 stars overall, claiming that Bertolli was “producing the best Italian food in the Bay Area.”

In 2005, however, Bertolli left Oliveto in a fallout with the owners and Canales was promoted to executive chef. As the Chronicle reported that year, Canales had actually been acting chef for some time, as Bertolli grew more interested in starting his own salumi business.

The trouble signs started in January. After eating cheap food in Texas and Oklahoma, Bauer filed a blog post questioning if Oliveto was overpriced.

A few months later, he dropped Oliveto from his Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants list, a choice that baffled at least one other food writer.

In his current review, Bauer clearly was disappointed with the restaurant’s appearance and service.

“If you look around the room, you see the workmanlike glasses on the tables, worn and scarred chairs, and a service staff that on my visits seemed too small for the number of seats. The waiters are good but couldn’t cover the room; we waited 15 minutes for wine and practically that long before anyone had enough time to check to see if we wanted dessert.”

He also had little good to say about the food.

The treviso radicchio salad with lonza (cured pork tenderloin) was “sodden.” The meatballs on one of the pastas were “mushy,” as were the sand dabs on another plate, he wrote.

A tepid plate of pancetta-wrapped rabbit cost Oliveto some stars from food critic Michael Bauer.
A “lukewarm” plate of pancetta-wrapped rabbit cost Oliveto some stars from food critic Michael Bauer. Photo by Carl Costas, Sacramento Bee

“The pancetta-wrapped rabbit was lukewarm, and the braised butter lettuce underneath was cool in some spots and warm in others, arranged on the plate with a loose, red, juicy sauce. The spit-roasted pork loin ($28) is redolent of the farm and the fire, but the sour cherry and black currant compote stripped it of its natural flavor and the firm, freshly milled polenta and salty greens were a disserve to the succulent meat.”

I can’t argue with Bauer about the service and atmospherics. Oliveto’s servers are terrifically knowledgeable about food, but sometimes they are so undermanned they must scramble to get plates out to the dining room. That’s one reason the restaurant’s carpets are frayed, one detail that escaped Bauer’s eye.

I also don’t doubt that Bauer was served some disappointing dishes on his last visit. I just question if those miscues were representative of what other customers experience.

Over the last five months, I’ve heard from dozens of readers, friends and acquaintances who’ve eaten at Oliveto. All have raved about the food and the service.

Any review of Oliveto needs to at least acknowledge the restaurant’s innovations, such as its special dinners and use of old-world techniques. After years of eating in the Bay Area, I have yet to find a restaurant that offers Oliveto’s variety of handmade pastas. If anything, Canales has improved the restaurant’s pasta by working to procure the finest flours and eggs with the richest yolks.

It’s also curious the bulk of Bauer’s critique was based on a single visit to Oliveto, and that only one other guest accompanied him. At most big-city newspapers, restaurant reviewers invite at least two or three other people to join them, so they can sample the widest array of dishes. By not doing so, Bauer didn’t give his readers a full sense of the Oliveto menu.

Among some at the restaurant, there’s a suspicion that Bauer has a personal bias against Oliveto, and thus didn’t invest much energy in reviewing it. “Ever since Bertolli left, he’s had it in for us,” said one of the cooks. “There is no way we can win.”

Yet that sentiment is hardly universal. When I brought it up, one long-time server, Molly Surbridge, said it would be a mistake for the chefs and staff to get defensive.

“Some of his criticisms are valid,” she said. “Instead of focusing on him, we should use his critique to figure out how to make this a better restaurant, not for him, but for us.”

I found Molly’s comment to be wise beyond her years. It’s a reflection of why Oliveto is a special place to work.

The owners, chefs and servers take a lot of pride in what they do, but not to the point of avoiding introspection. Bauer’s review, while off the mark in many ways, will undoubtedly spur Oliveto to engage in some healthy reflection.

After all, if you run a restaurant, you constantly have to ask yourself: How can I make it better?

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About the Author ()

I am a veteran newspaper reporter who has transcended to the life of a kitchen slave. In April, I took a leave from The Sacramento Bee, where I work as a columnist and editorial writer, to intern at Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Oakland. Until at least September, I will be working five days a week at the restaurant, learning basic culinary skills and helping Oliveto prepare its nightly dishes. What will happen at the end of my sabbatical? Who knows? At the very least, I'll be a far better chef than when I started. I've been a dedicated home cook for more than 20 years, largely because of the inspiration of my wife, Micaela Massimino. Mickie and I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively in Italy, France, the Deep South, New Mexico, Vietnam and Japan, and we enjoy cooking food from all of those places. I also have some experience in writing about food -- particularly the environmental consequences of food production. In the 1990s, I covered the rise of industrial hog farming in North Carolina, while working at the Raleigh News & Observer. Since moving back to California in 1999 and joining The Bee, I've specialized in coverage of water issues and threats to the state's fisheries. When I am not cooking, eating or writing, I like to take long rides on my various bicycles, which helps build an appetite for more cooking, eating and writing.
  • David Alexander

    This is a reasonable response although of course the writer has a personal interest. The idea that Mr. Bauer somehow “has it in for” Oliveto is quite ridiculous and there is no evidence presented for this statement. Some will like Oliveto and some will not. I for one have always found it a bit pretentious and overpriced. The writer is correct that rather than grouse they should just rededicate themselves and try harder.

  • jen

    michael bauer demoted oliveto because restaurants like pizziola, dopo and corso are kicking oliveto in the ass. who wants to pay mucho $$$ for italian food, when you can have it better at a place like dopo where the chef cooked at oliveto and charges less for a bowl of pasta. sure it’s not fine dining but these days, with the recession and all, people still want great food but are more budget conscious.

  • Rose

    I have eaten at Oliveto twice, and on both occasions left dissatisfied. For the price point, I expected better food & better service. If it weren’t for the rave reviews I’d read and the prospect of the celebrated whole hog dinner, I might not have given it a second try, but I did and was disappointed again. I was happy to read MB’s review, maybe the restaurant will step it up now and others won’t have my experiences.

  • Frankie

    It was more than one visit, he went twice this year and has been a couple of other times in the past 2 years. He was pretty clear as to why M.B. dropped it from the top 100, and these two visits were after that decision. He also made a strong point that if you pay this much, you need to back it up with good service. There is no excuse for an undermanned service staff.

  • Robin Joly

    We had good service but disappointing food. The squid was good but not great and the veal could have come from a school cafeteria–leathery, overcooked, gray gravy. Excellent desserts, very high prices.

  • Gumbo

    I live in Rockridge and have eaten at Oliveto on many occassions. I once loved this establishment, but I believe it jumped the shark at least two years ago. I would not say the service is poor, but they are famous for being unable to manage their reservation list. It is my experience that you can expect to wait at least 20 minutes for table, even when you have a reservation. Also, while the service is not poor, it is condescending. Finally, Oliveto has a habit of packing in extra tables on holidays and other “big nights,” leaving patrons cheek to jowl in the upstairs dining room. As for the food, it was once consistently fantastic. Now it is hit or miss. Lay off the salt, please!

  • Eric Christenson

    I’ve eaten at Olivetos since the late 80’s. I have seen and tasted the progression that Bob Klein and Paul Canales have made since Paul Bertolli’s departure. The execution and consistancy of the dishes has improved. Paul’s travels and the inspiration from various Italian regional influences matched with locally produced ingredients are readily apparent. For those who have not seen and soon tasted the current Tomato menu I would say you have missed on some very fine cooking. For those who have not seen the progression of Oliveto’s cooking because they did not have the opportunity, I’m sorry for you. I have and continue to enjoy Oliveto’s through Paul B and Paul C’s menus. Michael Bauer has an opinion and believes that opinion influences the Bay Area food scene. But he’s but a byline now and San Francisco needs a food critic that can influence the quality of Bay Area food. Given the current climate and economic environment, the local restaurant that commits to quality suppliers over the years will continue to scintillate the taste buds of local diners. Maybe it is time for someone willing to support the likes of Olivetos who have demonstrated over the years the commitment to quality that may not be seen in all resturants in the Bay Area.

  • E. Parks Kibbey

    I’m absolutely baffled each time I read reviews like Bauer’s, or comments like some of the above. I moved to Rockridge in late 2007, two years after initially arriving in San Francisco from New York. I’d never thought twice about Oliveto, that sign on the monolith that is Market Hall just off the BART station. I also famously scoffed at my Bay-Area-native husband’s attempts to take me to Italian restaurants in the Bay Area. All that changed from the first meal I ate at Oliveto. No, it isn’t New York style Italian (low or high)–it’s even better because the food Oliveto serves is as committed to tradition as it is innovation. Mr. Klein and Mr. Canales are making food that isn’t made anywhere else. And ironically, the service was what drew me to the place at first! What many people seem to interpret as “condescension” and “pretension” is what I read as knowledge. Oliveto is a place where you have to relinquish a bit of control, more in the European tradition of great restaurants, and allow the chef and his trusted servers to guide you on your gastronomic adventure. Some people, many Americans I think, have great difficulty with this, but anyone who has eaten abroad has experienced the immense pleasure that is possible when you give up your insistence on what you think is best and allow yourself to be guided, will value an Oliveto experience. Two years since my first meal at Oliveto I eat there every chance I get (and refuse to eat almost anywhere else) and have attracted quite a crowd of disciples–friends from New York who now insist to be taken directly there from the airport.

    Finally, a word about this pesky argument about prices. Value is a funny thing. As an outsider in this area, I find it funny how people here expect something for nothing. They want the best, but they don’t want to pay. Bauer’s arguments about Oliveto’s markups to my mind are moot–if we applied his logic to all restaurants, each one would end up looking as though they were scamming us–whether it was a $4 dessert or a $12 one–they are all markups from the cost of ingredients, how do you think restaurants make money? The difference that Bauer and others overlook is the value of the ingredients Oliveto uses, the farmers they support, and the practices they engage in, from something as simple as how to wash lettuce so that no leaf is bruised and flavor and texture are preserved completely.

    Everyone’s wallets are hurting these days, for sure. Personally, I would rather blow a month or two month’s restaurant budget on one meal at Oliveto than two-and-a-half meals at Dopo (talk about a WAIT and GREASY too) or Pizzaiolo (very basic, I-can-make-that-at-home stuff, and so loud! do people like this place because there are no good clubs in Oakland?).

    I don’t expect anyone to change their mind. Restaurants are personal experiences, and like Mr. Alexander said above, some will like it, some will not. But I love Oliveto, and in the swirl of bad press it deserves a word in its defense.