Riva's cuisine is exceptional, honest

September 19, 2007
Section: Food
Nicholas Boer STAFF WRITER

My first bite might as well have been a sultry, salty kiss. The chef had already warmed virgin olive oil over a bare flame for hours, steeping it with resinous rosemary. Our waitress put a pinch of salt in a ramekin, topped it with the oil, and brought it to our table with fresh slices of chewy Acme Rustic Baguette. The surprise effect of those flavorful crystals was as simple and powerful as a teenage smooch. I was dumbstruck.

Massimiliano Boldrini's Riva Cucina opened in April, but East Bay chefs, it seems, have been imitating him for years. Where others talk a good game, Boldrini delivers -- a stunning piece of fish, of cheese, of tomato, a little salt, a little olive oil --accentuating natural goodness. There are others who execute this simple but devilishly difficult philosophy -- Oliveto and Chez Panisse come to mind -- but none that is directed so completely by one person. With only 32 seats inside (another 44 on the patio) and a location you'd never stumble across, Riva's pace never gets out of Boldrini's hands. It's fortunate, in a way, that Riva is off the beaten track. Boldrini likes to be in control, and an initial rush of customers could have thrown him off his game. "I'm a conservative person," the 33-year-old Boldrini says. "I start everything slow."

He grew up in Emilia-Romagna in Northern Italy, the son of a chef who used lots of butter. But while Massimiliano's cooking is sweet -- from ripe produce and careful caramelization -- it's not overly rich. "The first word that comes up for me is honest," Boldrini says. "Honest food, honest cuisine." My first course was Burrata ($10), the creamy mozzarella currently in fashion. This was not salad with cheese, it was cheese with salad. A quivering flan-sized round atop a scatter of baby, wild arugula. A drizzle. A grind. A sprinkle. A lovely late-summer dish. A sweet scallop appetizer is a little more complex. Bodrini pulverizes saffron and salt in a spice grinder and whisks the dust into lemony olive oil. That's the sauce. The virgin half-dollar scallops -- a bargain at $11.50 -- are seared on one side and plated with a soft pile of baked eggplant and squash. The veggies' sugars come to the fore, garlic and thyme fading to the rear.

Our lunch only gets better. My Panino con Agnello ($10.50), the most decadent dish I tried and a chef's favorite, slathers caramelized onions in a sweet roll with warm slices of roasted lamb. To make it, Boldrini debones and flattens the whole leg, smears it with roasted garlic, sage, rosemary and thyme, rolls it tight and cooks it pink. Bites of the sandwich reveal cloves of sticky-soft garlic, peppery arugula and a spike of Dijon. Boldrini wows you with carefully considered textures. When I interviewed him Tuesday, he had just created a bruschetta served on a puree of tuna confit and aioli. He talked excitedly about how the creamy fish would hit the tongue while the palate encountered slick tomato -- followed by a toothsome crunch of toast. The 6-foot-2-inch Boldrini is remarkably steady, yet young enough to get enthused by such innovations. He arrives each day at 8 a.m. and gets feedback from customers who linger with lattes and delicate pastries. "I'm making a lot of friends," he says describing the jolt of energy he gets from the interactions. "It's like I'm drinking coffee every 30 minutes." He's like that until his head hits the pillow after putting in a fish order at 2 a.m.

Boldrini's American wife, Jennifer, like the other wait staff, dresses in jeans and a long-sleeve brown Riva shirt. In addition to her long red hair and immense smile, she distinguishes herself by checking in with diners to see how they're doing. I returned for dinner on my own and had no problem getting a table without a reservation on Friday. My waiter told me it's usually a busy night, but on this Friday, the dining room was less than half full.

Breakfast service paraphernalia -- chalkboard with coffee drinks and a pastry case -- gives the restaurant a casual feel, especially with no host at the entrance. Potted table plants, buttery walls and upright hutches make it even more homey. Outside the brick building are planters filled with herbs that Boldrini planted with the preschool kids across the street. The patio chairs and tables are fashionable wood, set out on a sprawling concrete walkway. My meal was lovely. The aroma from a cup of whole lentil soup ($4) evoked the pot on grandma's stove, although nonna never used prosciutto rind to infuse her broth with porky goodness. A beet salad ($9.50), cubes of chiogga marinated in Champagne vinegar, was more light than earth: brilliant greens and a flutter of ricotta salata. The shaved ricotta -- pressed of all its liquid and gently cured -- had a magical effect, with a rich and elusive mouth-feel like good Champagne. Seared tuna ($18.50) is, for better or worse, unlike any other. As with his scallops, Boldrini crusts one side over super-high heat, turns off the flame, turns over the fish, and lets it sit for a minute in its own juices. Letting it "marinate" and leaving just a sliver of raw in the middle produces a meaty taste with a chew that's leathery on top, tender underneath. A thick pulse of garbanzo mashed with vegetable broth added to the dish's weight.

Boldrini spent a recent week of afternoons tasting wines with his staff, and the result is a solid but small predominately Italian list It was refreshing to have a waiter who had tasted all the wines and recommended a red on the low end. It would be remiss of me to not mention Riva's pastas, a big part of the menu and a big part of what keeps it affordable.

Boldrini makes "90 percent" of his pastas now, and will soon make them all. He's slowly moving towards an all-scratch menu, in fact. He just bought sausage-making equipment this week. At lunch, we tried his triangular ravioli ($13.50) stuffed with sausage. The meat, like the crimini mushrooms served with the ravioli, is braised in red wine with shallots, garlic and thyme. Another honest dish that will only taste more true as fall's wild mushroom crop kicks in.

Reach Nicholas Boer at 925-943-8254 or RIVA CUCINA ***/2 FOOD: ***1/2 AMBIENCE: **1/2 SERVICE: *** WHERE: 800 Heinz Ave. (at 7th Street), Berkeley CONTACT: 510-841-7482, HOURS: 8 a.m.-11:30 a.m. (pastries and coffee), 11:30-3:30 and 5:30-9 p.m. daily. 4-6 p.m. Thursday and Friday is Aperitivi, an Italian happy hour with free appetizers to customers ordering wine. CUISINE: Northern Italian. PRICES: $$. Dinner entrees $13-$19. VEGETARIAN: Riva gets lots of vegetarians, and there are always vegan salad, pasta and entree options. BEVERAGES: Limited but well-selected wines by the glass. Reasonable markup; most bottles are $30-$50. The 2004 Valle Reale Montepulciano D'Abruzzo ($40) is an excellent choice. RESERVATIONS: Recommended, but often not necessary. NOISE LEVEL: Concrete ceiling and floor can make the dining room loud. PARKING: No problem. KIDS: Special, sophisticated kids' menu. PLUSES: Clean, honest Italian cuisine at affordable prices. Lamb sandwich, scallops and burrata are exceptional. MINUSES: Closed weekends. DATE OPENED: April 30, 2007. policy The Times does not let restaurants know that we are coming in to do a review, and we strive to remain anonymous. If we feel we have been recognized or are given special treatment, we will tell you. We pay for our meal, just as you would. Star key * Fair ** Good *** Great **** Extraordinary Price code $ Typical entree under $10 $$ Typical entree under $20 $$$ Typical entree under $30 $$$$ Typical entree under $40