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5655 College Ave. (in the Market Hall building), Oakland
Oliveto, the 35-year-old Rockridge restaurant that led the way for the Cal-Italian food movement of the 1990s and early 2000s, will close at the end of 2021, co-owner Bob Klein told Nosh Tuesday. “Maggie and I are going to retire,” Klein said, referencing his wife, Oliveto co-founder and cookbook author Maggie Blyth Klein. “It’s never the right time” to end a restaurant’s run, the 74-year-old Klein said, but “we’re stubborn, and we wanted to stick through the pandemic … we want to go out with joy.”
That attitude of enthusiasm and positivity has been a trademark of the longstanding restaurant, the kitchen of which has been led by chefs including Duende’s Paul Canales, Michael Tusk of San Francisco’s three-Michelin-star Quince and Paul Bertolli. Bertolli (who also served as Chez Panisse’s executive chef from 1982-1992) guided Oliveto through its nationally lauded period from 1995-2005, during which — as then-SF Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer once put it — “he made Oliveto into what many considered the best Italian restaurant in the United States.”
“The life that has gone on here in the last 35 years has been remarkable,” Klein says of his restaurant, which Bauer has credited with inspiring notable Bay Area restaurants including Delfina, A16 and Flour+Water. Often spoken of in the same breath as Chez Panisse, which opened in Berkeley just 15 years before Oliveto served its first plate of pasta, Oliveto was also “locally sourced” and “farm-to-table” long before those phrases became marketing buzzwords, building direct relationships with farmers and vendors to ensure the highest-possible quality supplies, meats and produce.
(In fact, those relationships are so close that when Nosh contacted Klein regarding Oliveto’s rumored closing, he asked that we delay publication until “I can talk to the farmers we work with [because] I wouldn’t want them to hear about it from someone besides us.”)
Also like Chez Panisse, Oliveto operates as a restaurant and cafe: the top floor of its iconic building at 5655 College Ave. is home to its white tablecloth fine dining operation, with a menu of $20-$37 entrees like wild mushroom bucatini and a Half Moon Bay black cod smoked in coffee. At street level there’s a casual-style Italian cafe, which Klein revamped in 2019 to serve slices of Roman-style pizza and whole-grain bagels from Berkeley’s Boichik Bagels, as well as grab-and-go sandwiches and a Mr. Espresso-fueled espresso bar. It, too, will shutter at year’s end.
Klein was firm, however, that he intends Oliveto to go out with a bang, not the proverbial whimper. “It’s really hard to own a restaurant in a pandemic, especially in our latter years,” he conceded, but “Oliveto will be going full-blown through Dec. 31.”
That “full blown” includes a resumption of many of the events that have made Oliveto a destination for the last four decades, including special dinners and offerings that loyal diners will recognize from years past. “We’d like [Oliveto’s final months] to be content rich,” Klein (a former journalist) said with a chuckle.
While Klein declined to provide details on exactly what events Oliveto has in store, fans know that the spot is known for hosting days-long celebrations of ingredients like the truffle, as well as a destination “Oceanic Dinner” typically curated by Tom Worthington of Berkeley’s sustainable fish leader Monterey Fish Market. “We’ll be able to tell all our customers more soon,” Klein said.
It’s events like these that helped set Oliveto apart, Worthington told Nosh. “Bob has always been someone who wanted to delve into subjects deeply,” Worthington said, “things like fish or tomatoes, with a celebration of those things at the right time.”
“When you’re a purveyor and someone comes to you and wants to celebrate what you do, it’s like ‘yes, sign me up,'” Worthington said. The special menus were “such a great way to break up a restaurant, and such a fun thing to do.” The events also benefit suppliers, Worthington said, as they “opened up your own mind to the possibilities” of the ingredients they sell.
Leading the charge from the kitchen is Peter Jackson, a longtime Bay Area entrepreneur and private chef. Jackson “is as good as anyone who’s been in charge of Oliveto’s kitchen,” Klein said, and is “committed to helping us close the restaurant.”
Klein says that the next steps for Oliveto’s high-profile space are still unclear. There have been discussions of a possible sale, but nothing firm enough to announce. “We’re looking at options,” he said.
But though Klein says he’s retiring, that’s not quite true — he remains committed to Community Grains, the heritage wheat, whole-grain flour, pasta and bread company he founded to support California-grown grains. “Community Grains is going full bore,” Klein said, with plans for an expansive education and outreach program in coming months. “The wheat system is complicated,” Klein said, so the company is figuring out “how to talk to people who might be interested in us.”
In many ways, Community Grains is a continuation of what Klein started at Oliveto, where “one of our goals is to connect our diners with their immediate environment.” The idea that “connecting yourself with the food that sustains you” has been a through line in Klein’s career in food, Worthington said. “And that’s unique in the food world, this idea of getting everyone to participate and to see all the connections we have with each other, the providers and our food.”
Now Klein is focused on connecting Oliveto’s faithful patrons for one last hurrah, a doubtlessly jam-packed two months filled with diners who want to get one last meal in. “When I told someone we’re closing, they said ‘you’re going to be bathed in love,’ and that’s true,” Klein said. “But first we need to get the reservation books ready.”
For its last two months in business, Oliveto’s upstairs dining room and downstairs cafe will be open seven nights a week. Wednesday – Saturday nights it will serve the upstairs restaurant kitchen menu. Sunday through Tuesday dinners will be from the downstairs cafe menu. Reservations are available via OpenTable or by calling 510-547-5356 after 4 p.m. Proof of vaccination is required for upstairs dining.