Alameda a la carte: C'era Una Volta turns 10

Alameda a la carte: C'era Una Volta turns 10

Denise Shelton
C'era Una Volta

Once upon a time - in 2004 - three friends decided to open a restaurant in Alameda. Since they were all Italian (two natives and an Italian-American), they figured it would be a good idea to feature Italian food and wine. They named their restaurant C'era Una Volta, which incidentally is Italian for "once upon a time." Eventually, one of the friends got homesick and returned to Italy. The others wished him well and redoubled their efforts to make their dream flourish. And flourish it did. But this is not the end of the story.

This month marks C'era Una Volta's 10-year anniversary. In an era when only three out of 10 restaurants make it to this point, it is quite an accomplishment for co-owners Cheryl Principato and Chef Rudy Duran.

Add to this a firm commitment to excellence in food, service, and atmosphere; an impressive list of awards (including recognition by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, an official cultural institution of the Italian government that reviews restaurants world wide for authenticity); and a distinguished record of service to the community, and you have not a Cinderella story, but a full-on saga.

I started going to C'era Una Volta in the early days. At that time, they were open every day at 7:00 a.m. (that is not a misprint, and it gives you some idea of the level of commitment it takes to launch a successful dining establishment). My friends and I would drop our children off at school and convene at the restaurant for coffee and pastries.

At the time, each of our group members were going through some serious hard times at home. Consequently, our "coffee break" turned into an informal support group and our visits could stretch on for hours. We couldn't believe they didn't throw us out. Instead, Rudy and Cheryl made us feel at home and never pressured us to order more or make ourselves scarce.

Sometimes, Rudy would whip up a frittata or some scrambled eggs, something not even on the menu, when one of our stressed-out number required more sustenance than pastry could provide. (Anything to stop the crying, I suppose!)

Eventually, the restaurant discontinued the early openings, but my regard for their kindness and generosity - not to mention their astounding work ethic - continues to this day.

Earlier this month, my husband and I reserved everybody's favorite table at C'era Una Volta - an out-of-the-way niche on the first floor nicknamed "the Cove." Regulars know to reserve it in advance for romantic dinners or hush-hush business meetings, and now you do, too.

C'era Una Volta's dining room has a wonderfully pleasing ambiance. Its style, which harkens back to Chef Rudy's culinary roots in Tuscany, is present yet understated. Paintings by local artists are displayed and changed periodically.

The lighting, while subdued, never forces the aging diner to long for a flashlight just to read the menu. The kitchen opens onto a reception area in a separate room, so the noise level is never a problem.

Each table is served fresh bread with a bowl of olive oil dotted with mustard for dipping.

Wine is big at C'era Una Volta, as it is in many Bay Area eateries, but the focus here is on Italian wines and food pairings. Both Rudy and Cheryl are members of the North American Sommelier Association.

My husband and I can never resist starting with the melt-in-your mouth burrata mozzarella cheese, served with mixed greens, tomatoes, basil, and a balsamic reduction. Burrata is solid mozzarella on the outside with a mixture of cheese and cream underneath. If you think of mozzarella as chewy or dense, you're in for a treat. You'll be tempted to order seconds. They also serve the traditional Caprese salad, which is wonderful as well. We accompanied our appetizer with a half bottle of Carpeni Malvolti Prosecco from the extensive wine list.

For our "primi piatti" (meaning "first dish" since, in Italy, pasta is served before the entree), I had penne with smoked salmon in cream sauce. My husband's pasta was served with a Chianti meat sauce. Both were excellent. I saved half of mine to have room for the rest of the meal and ate it for lunch the next day. Reheating it in the microwave did nothing to diminish my adoration.

For our "secondi piatti" (or second dish), we ordered a special filet mignon, cooked to order with a heavenly sauce made with Straveccio Branca, an Italian brandy. The garlic mashed potatoes that accompanied the meal are among the best we've ever tasted, so light and creamy I'd love to know the secret.

As we often do, we brought our own wine to have with the meal, which the waiter graciously decanted without being asked, making the corkage fee that much easier to bear.

For dessert, we had the tiramisu, possibly the best we've ever tried, and neither of us is a big fan of coffee-flavored desserts. This is an exception.

As usual, both Rudy and Cheryl stopped by our table to see how everything was. Both were looking forward to their respective vacations, a rare occurrence for anyone in the restaurant business but even rarer for restaurant owners. Cheryl bound for another island to do as little as possible and Rudy, to meet his new grandchild, Mario, back in Italy. He proudly showed us a picture on his cell phone of a baby in a hospital bassinet who appeared to be making a (shall we say) controversial gesture. We all agreed this was indicative of a strong character.

I congratulated them on their 10-year anniversary as a rare achievement. Rudy just shrugged it off. "When we started," he said, "we planned to just keep going, so that's what we did. It's what we do. We just keep going."

The moral of the story: Hard work, high standards and determination aren't just about a happy ending. They're about a story worth telling, again and again.

C'era Una Volta, 1332 Park Street (in Redwood Square); 769-4828. Open six days a week from noon to 8:00 p.m. Open for lunch, brunch, and dinner. Closed Mondays.

The Kitchen Garden: Results Not Typical

This morning, my friends in New York awoke to snow on the ground, again. Sucks to be them.

Meanwhile, on the left coast, this Alice Waters wannabe wandered out to the back 40 (square feet) to harvest my home-grown, locally-sourced, organic produce: a bounty of six, count 'em six, strawberries. Here it is only April and I'm already enjoying the berries of my labors. Proud? You bet! By August, I should be waist-deep in produce, right? If experience tells me anything it's no, not so much.

The National Home Gardening Association says Americans spent $2.5 billion on growing their own food in 2008. That's a lot of money spent on something people think of as a money-saving activity.

We read blogs and articles about how to do it and how to do it better and how to do it more efficiently. We swoon over expressions like "it's fun and easy" and "you'll never have to buy onions again" and we believe. We drool over seed catalog photos of toddlers holding up tomatoes the size of cantaloupes and dream of bushels of potatoes in grow bags that "practically harvest themselves." We pat ourselves on the back that we are producing superior quality produce at a fraction of the grocery store or farm market price. Are we kidding ourselves? Yes, most of us are. Let the buyer beware.

Like William Alexander, author of The $64 Tomato, most of us are so enthusiastic about growing our own food that we fail to pay attention to what it's costing us in time and money. This is especially true because our enthusiasm is cleverly flamed to a fever pitch by the people who are not so much concerned about saving money as making it: the seed, nursery, and garden supply companies.

As little as they seem to have in common philosophically, Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. and Monsanto have exactly the same goal: to get you to part with your green in exchange for their promise of greens. They do this by planting seeds in our heads, early and often.

They release their full-color catalogs during the bleakest months when we're longing for sunshine. (Do you have any idea what it costs to produce a full-color catalog and distribute it to millions of people? Neither do I, but you can bet it's a lot.) They offer coupons and bonuses and BOGO specials. They publish endorsements from satisfied customers who pose proudly with their state fair, blue ribbon beauties, proving that it CAN be done, so if you're not doing it, you must not be doing it right. In other words, "Don't blame us if your eggplant lays an egg."

The truth is, the merchants in the home gardening trade have no control over how well your green beans and turnips turn out and can't be held accountable. A seed does nothing without the right combination of time, light, temperature, water, soil, and nutrients, all of which are the home gardener's problem, not theirs. The pictures they print are not promises, they're possible outcomes. Let the buyer beware.

Don't get me wrong. Most of the companies I've dealt with sell good-quality products and they aren't doing anything underhanded by showing you what's attainable under the right conditions. Just don't expect too much, especially if you are new to the process. Keep in mind that those pictures are kind of like the women in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Sure, they exist - but don't expect to trip over one at Crown Beach.

In Alameda, there are not a lot of homes with the space or sunlight available to grow the sort of vegetable garden that, even in a banner year, can support the needs of an average family. Keep in mind also that many of the gardening information we get is not specific to this area. A home gardener in Indiana may save a lot by growing heirloom tomatoes there, but heirlooms here are not nearly as expensive and are available most of the year. They are, in fact, at their least expensive when they are in season, which is exactly when your homegrown ones will appear on the scene, reducing your potential savings even further.

In spite of everything, I still enjoy growing some of my own produce. My biggest money savings has been in growing herbs like parsley, basil, rosemary, sage, thyme, peppermint, and oregano. Lettuce is a good bet as well, but you have to be prepared to re-sow throughout the season because canned or frozen lettuce is just not an option.

This year, the strawberry plants I started last summer from a friend's runners are producing beautifully. I won't have enough berries at one time to make jam or the strawberry sauce I routinely whip up to serve over Swedish pancakes, so I'm flash freezing them as they ripen until I have enough. Since they are doing so well, I will plant more next year and see if I can get the yield I need to make something fresh.

I'm also growing garlic for the first time. Like me, you probably have enough space to grow enough for your family, although you may have to preserve some in olive oil to get you through the whole year.

As for tomatoes, sigh. I really love them fresh off the vine but after slaving over eight plants last year, it just didn't seem worth the effort this time. I was forced to make an exception, however.

A volunteer that survived the worm bin (let's call him "Lazarus") popped up in the compost I used to fertilize my avocado tree and I thought, "That sort of determination deserves to be recognized." So I'm going to give Lazarus a chance. He may not save me a dime, but he's already given me a pretty good story. And after all, money isn't everything.

New and Noteworthy: Rosenblum Cellars Defects to Jack London Square

Alameda's original "urban winery," Rosenblum Cellars, will leave Alameda to set up its new tasting room and visitors center in Jack London Square. The company says the move is designed to provide its visitors with a more dynamic location with better access to restaurants and public transportation.

The prominent winery, acknowledged primarily for its top-flight zinfandels and Rhone varietals, was founded by Kent Rosenblum in 1978 and has been in Alameda since 1987. Rosenblum and his investors sold the brand to Diageo, a British multinational alcoholic beverages company which bills it self as "the world's premium drinks business," in 2008.

Since moving Rosenblum's production facility to Napa in 2010, Diageo continued to operate Rosenblum Cellars' main tasting room and visitors center on the Island, but has now decided to leave Alameda entirely. No address has been announced for the new tasting room as yet, but a July grand opening is anticipated.

Dining Options Proliferate at South Shore Center

Two new restaurants will open this year at Alameda South Shore Center and an existing eatery has expanded its hours to include lunch service.

Bagel Street Café, a family-owned business serving fresh baked bagels, homemade cream cheese spreads, and gourmet lunch sandwiches, is set to open this summer in a space near Old Navy. The chain currently has 22 other locations in the Bay Area including Oakland, Berkeley, and San Jose.

The Best Lil’ Porkhouse will open its third location later this year near Loard’s ice cream shop. A regional barbeque restaurant serving organic, humanely raised meats, the restaurant currently has locations in San Rafael and Corte Madera.

Locally-owned Trabocco Kitchen and Cocktails, an Italian restaurant that opened for business at South Shore Center last November, recently began serving lunch. The new lunch hours are 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., seven days a week.


Submitted by John P. (not verified) on Fri, Apr 18, 2014

Denise, wow you must be making the big bucks to have a dinner like the one described above. You made me hungry just telling about it. On the back yard growing, I have been growing Roma's many years for my tomato sauce. I usually fill up my freezer and my sons with the large zip lock bags of sauce. Six plants give me more than I can use, also lettuce and chard, easy to grow and you just keep trimming what you need. your my favorite food critic. John P.