A new chef livens up beloved Italian tradition Oliveto, and sexy Gitane intensifies its regional Spanish focus
APPETITE Nothing replaces actually experiencing a cuisine served in its place of origin, but regional dinners are one way of traveling vicariously (and, perhaps, with less of a carbon footprint).
Occasionally, you get more than a meal, as with a January 23 dinner at Oakland's Latin American haven, Bocanova (www.bocanova.com ), which hosts the monthly Rick's Supper Club, highlighting South American cuisine. As a lucky few dug into wild shrimp and lobster ceviche or smoky, steamed mussels, dinner sponsor LAN Airlines surprised attendees with free round trip tickets to fly to any South American destination... a freak out "Oprah moment." In lieu of that kind of bell and whistle, here are two restaurants fiercely dedicated to uncovering the subtlety of their chosen cuisine.
Every year I'd anticipate legendary Whole Hog dinners at Oakland's temple to regional Italian cuisine, Oliveto, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. I dropped off after chef of 15 years, Paul Canales departed — he just opened buzzed-about restaurant-bar-music venue Duende. But I returned this year to the warm and stylish upstairs restaurant (there's a more casual cafe downstairs). Just over a year ago, young chef Jonah Rhodehamel took over. With consummate host-proprietors Bob and Maggie Klein thankfully still running the restaurant, Oliveto maintains its purpose as a culinary community stalwart akin to Chez Panisse (community journal, whole-animal history, food activism), with regional Italian focus and themed dinners.
Rhodehamel honors Oliveto history while unafraid to experiment. Pastas ($15-18), which remain the highlight, might be a traditionally-influenced spaghettini neri of squid ink pasta, shrimp, and chili pepper, but he'll add chocolate to tomato-braised oxtail corzetti, use red winter wheat in penne alla Bolognese, or infuse Floriani Red Flint corn polenta under duck giblet ragu with intense lavender vanilla notes. The fritto misto ($13) stands out from what is often merely a pile of fried food. Rhodehamel fries up the unusual: scungil (whelk), herring, blood orange, and shirako (cod milt, ahem, I mean, sperm).
The only lackluster starter was miniscule pan-fried frog's legs ($14) with a parsley sformatino (like savory panna cotta). Charcoal-grilled meats are impeccable: buttery, crispy pork porterhouse ($30) sits amidst cannellini beans and braised chard, while rare Piedmontese ribeye ($36) is crispy on the exterior, radiant pink inside, next to creamed spinach and Yukon Gold potatoes. Espresso chocolate stracciatella ice cream ($8) is a lush, caffeine finish, though after trying all recent desserts, I'd also take fluffy ricotta cheesecake ($8) with candied kumquats.
5655 College Ave., Oakl. (510) 547-5356, www.oliveto.com 
Since opening in 2008, Gitane is easily one of our sexiest restaurants. Ducking into an alley, down a couple steps into the lush reds, tapestries, and chandelier glow of a tiny, two level space... so begins your seduction by a lover who knows how. Executive chef Bridget Batson has been here since the beginning. In November, the restaurant shifted directions with the addition her husband, co-executive chef Patrick Kelly (of La Folie and Napa's Angèle), and chef de cuisine David Martinez.
Staying true to the meaning of gitane — gypsy woman — the new menu wanders gypsy-like through Southern Spain, changing cities (Andalusia, Sevilla, Valencia) every few weeks. In keeping with the celebratory setting, the appropriately deemed "passport" tasting menu is $65 for five courses (wine pairings from new wine director, Sarah Knoefler, $45), available in the intimate upstairs dining room. Bar and alley/patio seating offers an a la carte menu ($12-36) or bar bites.
Though they've combined Spanish and Moroccan influence since day one, Bridget and Patrick's recent Spain travels allow them to now dig deeper into regional Spanish cuisine. The first regional focus was Valencia. The tasting menu began with a salad of baby beets, fuyu persimmon, Marcona almonds, citrus, nasturtium paired with honeysuckle notes of a Musva Moscatel from Valencia. Moving on, Dungeness crab and cuttlefish were touched with sea urchin vinaigrette and pineapple. A delight of fatty Iberico pork cheeks, Matsutake mushroom and raw Nantucket Bay scallops sat in a brilliant golden raisin-saffron-mushroom coulis. Fourth course: pan-roasted duck breast in tempranillo chili puree accented by oloroso sherry-compressed pears (yes!) The finish? A winning pumpkin creme caramel.
An à la carte meal yielded an over-salted but beautifully seared scallop with crispy sweetbreads ($16). I preferred crisped, roasted artichokes piled with sunchokes and Manchego cheese ($13), or an entree of rabbit (conejo) two ways ($32): roasted saddle and a dreamy riletta, accompanied by braised snails and caramelized squash. Ramon Garcia remains Bar Manager, still serving refreshing cocktails ($12) like an elegantly smoky Chimenea: mezcal, rye, allspice dram, maple syrup, orange bitters.
6 Claude Lane, SF. (415) 788-6686, www.gitanerestaurant.com 
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