Yes, pasta can be spectacular

Clay Kallam

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Maggi Brown

I should have known right away it was going to be special.

Even though we’re pasta lovers, we’d never been to Belotti – a previous attempt was bumped by a visit from the grand-daughter – but I finally managed to get a weekend reservation. As we got close to where I thought the restaurant was, I saw an empty parking space, and despite the impatient presence of a bus behind us, managed to parallel park on the first try.

When we got out of the car, Belotti was two doors away, a piece of parking karma that proved to be predictive.

Belotti is a small storefront on College Avenue in Oakland’s Rockridge area, but its reputation has spread throughout the Bay Area for its superb pasta. And though I was willing to believe, I also wondered how much better Belotti’s pasta could be than the many, many pasta places we’ve eaten at over the years.

The answer? A lot better. So much better than I can really describe. But since I have 600 words to fill here, I’ll give it a try.

I ordered Casoncelli Bergamaschi, which chef Michele Belotti describes on the menu as “My Mom’s Bergama style stuffed pasta.” This is a little confusing, as Bergama is a city in Turkey (the ancient Pergamon), and not a place you’d think of when looking for pasta. But the shape, apparently, is unique, rectangular, with a central stuffing of beef, prosciutto and pork shoulder.

Shape, shmape. It was so good. So good. The pasta itself was perfect, and the slightly spicy stuffing blended wonderfully with the pasta and the olive oil, spices and prosciutto bits that lightly coated the bottom of the bowl.

When I really like a pasta, I usually can’t help myself. I just put it on my fork as quickly as I can, and blow through that plate in no time. But with Casconcelli Bergamaschi, each bite – about half of one stuffed piece – was so good, so flavorful, that I just had to savor it for a while. And then a sip of the fine, reasonably priced red wine. And another half a piece.

So good.

My wife went with the Tortellini di Polenta Tino e Coniglio, which was another stuffed pasta, this time filled with polenta, rabbit sugo and thyme. She was reluctant to swap bite for bite, but unusually, we both agreed we loved the other’s pasta too. But no more trading occurred, just wine-sipping (she loved her white wine selection) and occasional murmurs of satisfaction.

Unlike every other pasta place I’ve ever been to, the menu did not include a Caesar salad. But the salads we ordered were both excellent, and the dessert was very good as well.

But Belotti is about the pasta, first and foremost, and if you think its reputation, or this article, is just hype and hopping on the latest bandwagon, then make a reservation and find out for yourself.

But don’t expect to get that parking place.

* * * * *

As I mentioned, we are partial to pasta and we’ve been to more than a few places. It’s hard to go wrong, of course, but here, in alphabetical order, are three we like:

Benvenuti: Across from the library in Walnut Creek, this long-time local favorite consistently delivers quality pasta with excellent cocktails and friendly service.

Donato & Co.: Near the intersection of Ashby and College in Berkeley, Donato & Co. excels at the basics. (Insider tip: Even though carbonara isn’t usually on the menu, it’s always available.)

Gianni's Italian Bistro: The location lacks ambiance – there’s a used car lot, a paint store and a tire place nearby – but San Ramon’s Gianni’s rises above its surroundings by focusing on plates of really good pasta.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

Walnut Creek, CA
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