Amid the holiday onslaught of homemade fudge squares, toffee shortbread and general sugar overload to be found at every gathering I attended in December, I ventured in to Fellini in Berkeley with a friend on a cold mid-December night. A friendly, funky neighborhood trattoria a few blocks away from Berkeley’s busier shopping districts, the restaurant manages to stay true to its Italian roots while still appealing to the health-minded diner.
Occupying a large space and sporting its own parking lot, Fellini houses a popular coffee bar and a restaurant that serves dinner nightly and brunch on the weekends. The spacious dining room was two-thirds full when we arrived. After a sunny greeting from a passing waiter, our friendly host promptly seated us by a window overlooking University Ave. Fellini is cozy and hip at the same time. Its colorful walls are adorned with Italian movie posters, and everyone is cheerful, making us feel that much more at home. That, and the prices are reasonable.
Pizza and pasta form the backbone of the menu. Given that both tend to make copious use of fromage, mozzarella, Parmesan and provolone cheese make frequent appearances on entrÃ©e ingredient lists. Nonetheless, a good half of the menu can be tailored to the vegan at the party by substituting soy cheese substitutes. Likewise, one could order a Caesar salad with vegan dressing”¦or not.
We did just that, requesting a half order of Caesar with the vegan dressing plus the Gypsy salad, which we chose for its name as much as it is health value. Healthy and generously sized as the salads were, we missed the anchovies in the Caesar salad, even though their absence was filled by an abundance of croutons. The Gypsy boasted a colorful mix of tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and capers but would have benefited from a snappier vinaigrette.Fellini’s wine hails from Italy, France and Spain and is available by the bottle as well as the glass. We sipped on a glass of a fine California syrah between courses, which wasn’t long. Service is prompt and we got both our entrÃ©e and pizza at the same time.
If you are serving pizza in Berkeley, it had better be special, and Fellini rises to the occasion. We shared a 12-inch Lulu that featured baby artichokes, roasted garlic and pesto, keeping the goat cheese but opting out of the mozzarella. Likewise, we decided not to order the “No Cowwie Maui” but appreciated the traditional ham-pineapple combo’s makeover in vegan bacon and vegan mozzarella. We noticed other thoughtful finished touches to their pizza specials, including swirls of chipotle barbeque sauce and lemon juice accents on a smoked salmon offering. The marinara and the flour used in the pizza dough are organic. The thin crisp crust served a perfect platform for the fresh toppings that didn’t stint on the fresh artichokes.
I cannot pass up an opportunity to order risotto, especially one featuring truffle oil as does Fellini’s mushroom risotto. I was even prepared to have it the old-fashioned dairy way. Nonetheless, our server was attentive to our tastes and asked if I would prefer it vegan.
“You can do that?”
“Why of course,” the server replied.
That kind of attitude pretty much sums up Fellini: everyone is intent on making sure you get what you want.
So vegan it was. Slow-cooked in broth and plump with porcinis and other mushrooms, the risotto arrived studded with green asparagus tips. It was definitely a hearty dish, and while we enjoyed it, the pizza was the unabashed star of this meal.
Despite our holiday glucose levels, we felt it our duty to run a quality control test on the dessert menu. Passing over the most decadent offerings (saving the chocolate chip bread pudding for a leaner month), we opted for a slice each of the vegan chocolate and vegan raspberry vanilla bean cakes. I do not think either was house-made, nonetheless, they ended the meal on a fine note, alongside, of course, a shot of espresso from Fellini organic coffeehouse.
Bene, bene, as they’d say in the old country.