A Taste of Tuscany

Locanda Olmo is located at 2985 College Ave. in Berkeley. Creditcards, reservations accepted. Lunch: Wednesday-Saturday, 11:30-2:30.Dinner: Tuesday-Sunday, 4:30-10:00. 848-5544.





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Though it's a lazy Wednesday evening, Locanda Olmo's cozy interior and

seductive Italian-food odors garner a constant stream of window-peepers - a

man in a baseball cap, a woman pushing a stroller, several couples taking

an evening walk. Many press hands and faces to the glass windows, squinting

while perusing the menu or peering at mid-meal diners delighting in a

profusion of exceptional Tuscan cuisine.

From pizza to pasta, cannelloni to carpaccio, Locanda Olmo serves up a

menu that is overwhelmingly diverse and delivered with precision and care.

Though prices may be a bit steep for the average student ($5-$6.50 for

appetizers, $7.50-$14.50 for entrees), this Elmwood Park eatery also

provides diners with a deceivingly snug atmosphere and warmly attentive

service.

Upon arrival at Locanda Olmo, diners are immediately seated on either

the smaller, narrower (read: "more intimate") main floor, or upstairs in

the surprisingly spacious mezzanine area. After munching on fresh bread

with crushed olives and sipping chilled sparkling mineral water, appetizer

and main course orders are taken. Just choosing an appetizer or insalate

(soup or salad) can be difficult, as you waffle between common favorites

like Bruschetta ($5) or polenta ($5) and less familiar, more intriguing

selections like Toscana (roasted eggplant with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes

and basil, $6) or Cozze Affogate (fresh mussels poached in white wine and

fresh herbs, $6).

My companion and I chose the Pere (pears braised in chianti, served with

melted gorgonzola cheese and topped with walnuts, $6.50) and Cozze

Affogate, which arrived attractively arranged and steaming. The pears were

soaked in a cinnamon-flavored chianti sauce, providing a sweet-tart

contrast to the pungent taste of the cheese. As for the Cozze Affogate, the

mussels were fresh and the shells wide open, doused in a lightly peppered

mix of sauce and diced tomatoes. While the Pere is large enough for two,

the Cozze Affogate could easily be split among three diners-especially if

you're in the mood for insalate.

Traditional green salads like Mista (baby greens and tomatoes, $4) or

Stracciatella (eggdrop with spinach, $4) are available, as are Caesar and

Greek salads ($4.75 small, $6.75 large), along with a Zuppa de Giorno (soup

of the day, $4).

Choosing entrees was more arduous than appetizers, since Locanda Olmo's

dinner menu offers numerous pasta, pizza, chicken and meat dishes. The

Salsicce (ravioli with ground Italian sausages, tomatoes and herbs, $9) and

Zucca (homemade crepes filled with pumpkin and ricotta cheese, set in a

sage butter, $9.50) looked enticing, but we settled on the Guazzetto

(Pappardelle pasta with prawns, lemon zest, Chardonnay and basil, $11.75).

Speckled with hot red pepper, the Guazzetto was spicier than

anticipated, but the lemon zest gave the dish a slightly sour, citrus

flavor that went well with the plump, fresh prawns. The pasta was a bit

chewy and underdone - often sticking together and not slipping with the

sauce - but an overall good selection.

We also chose the Gnocchi al Pesto (potato dumplings with a walnut,

basil and garlic sauce, $8.50), one of the "tamer" gnocchi or risotto

selections. The gnocchi was excellent - pillowy and hearty with a smooth

texture. Smothered in pesto sauce, this dish was aromatic, tasty and

filling as the potato pasta sponged the pesto, insuring consumption of all

the sauce.

At this point in the meal, we were satiated. Waited on by an attentive

staff and served diverse, tasty food, this was an enjoyable dining

experience. Yet, we decided to try the Pizza Vegetariana (thin-crust pizza

with mozzarella cheese and fresh roasted vegetables, $7.50), as we had

heard about Locanda Olmo's excellent pizza pies ($7.50-$9). While the pizza

was good - the mozzarella gooey and creamy, but not greasy, the crust

wafer-thin and crunchy -the vast majority ended up in a takeout box in the

car. Fortunately, it reheated well later to make a decadent Tuscan snack.

Locanda Olmo's menu is so extensive that even discriminating diners can

find a satisfying meal. Following Berkeley's tradition of honoring all

manner of dietary habits, Locanda Olmo serves many vegetarian and vegan

dishes and will tailor dishes to diners' requests.

Though reservations are accepted, weeknights tend to be quieter, so they

are not necessary. Weekends, however, can pick up quite a bit, so in order

to insure a table for visiting parents or an important date, calling ahead

is a good idea.

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