The Red-Sauce Joint Evolution

The Red-Sauce Joint Evolution

The Italian Homemade Company brings low-key, fast-casual everyday Italian to Elmwood.

When The Italian Homemade Company opened its doors on New Year’s Day, I seriously doubted Berkeley needed another Italian restaurant.

I was wrong. Almost every night, the place is packed with families and students thrilled to have a low-key, fast-casual option for big portions of freshly made pasta—so fresh, in fact, that you’ll often spot one of the chefs rolling and cutting dough by hand.

Waiting in line, watching children gleefully twirl fettuccini to an electro-swing soundtrack as cooks bellowed orders in Italian, I realized there isn’t an Italian restaurant quite like this one in the East Bay. There are a lot of Italian restaurants. Too many, really. But the majority are upscale Cal-Italian, where the average price for a plate of pasta runs $18. At some point in the past several years, Italian became synonymous with high-end and special occasion dining. And casual, family-friendly, independently-owned red-sauce joints couldn’t compete. There are some survivors, but not many.

The Italian Homemade Company feels like the next evolution of those red-sauce joints—and a completely logical one. Fast-casual is the new normal, and it was only a matter of time before an Italian restaurateur took the leap. In this case, those restaurateurs are Mattia Cosmi, Alice Romagnoli, and Mirco Tomassini, who opened the first Italian Homemade Company in San Francisco’s North Beach in 2014, just one year after arriving from Italy. They also have another location in Cow Hollow and one on the way in Hayes Valley. Fittingly, the location in Elmwood took the place of A.G. Ferrari Foods, the Italian deli that closed all of its Bay Area locations about a year ago. Like A.G. Ferrari, The Italian Homemade Company also maintains a small market with imported Italian products, such as dried pasta, jarred tomato sauce, and amaretti cookies.

When The Italian Homemade Company opened in North Beach, food writers wondered how a new Italian spot would do in a district with so many great, long-running Italian restaurants with loyal followings. As you could probably guess, it was an immediate hit and remains one of the most popular restaurants in the neighborhood.

In the Elmwood, Tomassini, Cosmi, and Romagnoli attempted to replicate their winning recipe. The menu is exactly the same, broken into sandwiches, salads, and pastas, though the chefs at each Italian Homemade Company are given free rein on daily specials. All of The Italian Homemade Company’s chefs graduated from ALMA, Italy’s most prestigious culinary school founded by Italy’s first Michelin three-star chef. So, in the words of Tomassini, “They know what they’re doing.”

On one evening, I tried gnocchi tossed with duck that was braised with orange juice and raisins. The gnocchi weren’t as soft and cloudlike as some of the East Bay’s top Italian restaurants, but the sauce, which wisely lengthened the life of the braising liquid with white wine and tomatoes, was stunning in its bright, citrusy flavor. Even better was the squid ink tagliolini, a shape akin to a thicker fettuccine, swimming in a briny, lobster butter sauce. On top sat a huge lobster claw with more meaty chunks mixed in.

At dinner, almost all of The Italian Homemade Company’s customers order pasta, so you’ll likely feel peer-pressured to do the same. That’s generally a good thing. The standard menu follows a mix-and-match format, where you pick from seven shapes and sauces. The pappardelle with Bolognese and meatballs is a justifiably popular combination—the sauce tasted balanced, the meatballs light, and the wide noodles al dente. The tortellini impressed as well, stuffed with a pleasingly salty mix of prosciutto, mortadella, pork, and Parmigiano. My favorite sauce wound up being the smooth and lush green pesto, which Tomassini said the team makes twice a day to ensure the freshness of the basil flavor as well as the vivid green color.

None of these pastas or sauces are going to beat the exquisite beauty you’d find at, say, Belotti Ristorante e Bottega in neighboring Rockridge, but everything is simple, solid, and delicious in a way that greatly exceeds Italian Homemade Company’s fast-casual setting. Sometimes you don’t want the pretense or price tags that come with so many of the East Bay’s Italian restaurants—you just want a big bowl of pasta, quickly, at a reasonable cost.

And if you ever want to try a full-on slab of gnocchi, you’ll have to come to The Italian Homemade Company, which might be the only restaurant in the region to serve gnocco rolls. Essentially, the chefs take gnocchi dough, flatten it into a rectangle, fill it with spinach and ricotta, roll it up, boil it, and then serve slices topped with Bolognese or marinara. I tried it with marinara and was most surprised by the wonderful buttery and tangy flavors of such a simple tomato sauce. The roll itself was, similar to the duck gnocchi, a little too dense for my liking. It might seem like a silly novelty item, but it’s not. It’s a very traditional dish served in little trattorias in a tiny part of Northern Italy. According to Tomassini, gnocco rolls are even difficult to find in most of the country.

That specific region lies within Emilia-Romagna, where Tomassini, Cosmi, and Romagnoli are from. It’s famed for its egg-rich pastas, prosciutto, mortadella, balsamic vinegar, and other beloved goods that have become commonplace in the United States. In addition to introducing the Bay Area to gnocco rolls, The Italian Homemade Company’s team is also proud of bringing piadine (singular: piadina) and cassoni (singular: cassone), sandwiches that are popular street food in their hometown of Rimini. Tomassini doesn’t believe anyone else in California is making them—in a traditional manner, at least. (Local chain Tomatina serves piadine, but they’re unabashedly oversized and not always Italian in flavor profile.) The piadina’s key characteristic is its yeast-free flatbread that lands somewhere between flour tortillas and pita in thickness.

Lunch is when folks tend to chooser piadine and cassoni over pasta at Italian Homemade Company. Most of the piadine contain Italian cold cuts and cheese, such as Prosciutto di Parma, speck, or even porchetta. I preferred the hot cassoni, which use the same piadina bread dough but get warmed up and sealed shut, calzone-style. I devoured one bursting with house-made, juicy sausage as well as bell peppers, onions, and stretchy mozzarella, dipped into a small cup of pasticciata, a Bolognese sauce mixed with béchamel, for extra decadence.

My quibbles are minor. On one visit, some strands of pappardelle were stuck together. My squid ink tagliolini included one stray, limp piece of fettuccini from a different order. And some of the chairs in the restaurant’s mismatched fleet are surprisingly uncomfortable.

Some folks might raise their eyebrows at the price point because, yes, $13 for something similar to spaghetti and meatballs is more expensive than red sauce joints of yore. But unlike The Italian Homemade Company, most of those neighborhood restaurants weren’t filling ravioli by hand, making their own flatbread every day, or importing most of their ingredients from Italy. This is the natural evolution for our food-obsessed times, and it’s a welcomed one.

The Italian Homemade Company

2905 College Ave., Berkeley

Hours: Daily 11am-9:30pm.

Average item: $15
Cash, All Major Credit Cards

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