A couple of years ago, I was dining with two close friends in San Francisco. We were eating at a French restaurant in Mint Plaza that had terrific food but a pricey menu. When we finished, my Italian friend said he wanted to go over to 54 Mint and get an espresso because it had one of the best in the City. We walked two doors down to 54 Mint and, while waiting for his espresso, my other friend and I perused the menu and plates in front of diners. We looked at each other and said, almost in unison, “We should have eaten here.” The food looked and smelled incredible and the takeout espresso business made for a distinct coffee perfume.
I would not soon forget this restaurant because it reminded me of the bustling cafes and bars I would see later in my travels through Italy. There would be a venerable cornucopia of Italian delicacies plated on a counter for you to eat up with your eyes and then order a selection to enjoy while partaking of a local glass of vino.
I’m excited to report that 54 Mint has opened an East Bay destination in the Oak Grove Plaza at the corner of Treat Boulevard and Oak Grove Road in Concord. The Rosticceria & Formaggi Ristorante occupies the space recently vacated by . On my visit, we were greeted by owner Claudio Ricciolini.
A charming Italian man who makes his home in Walnut Creek, he reminded me of a very thin version of Curd Jürgens, who played Karl Stromberg, the lead protagonist in the James Bond movie “The Spy Who Loved Me.” His pronounced Italian accent is not only soothing to listen to but an indication of the passion behind the food at the restaurant. He welcomes you and launches into an explanation of the menu, the ordering options and the details of the dishes on the daily specials menu.
Just like an Italian café/bar, you walk into a restaurant that features a counter loaded with the specialties on the menu. At lunch, dishes are priced for dining in or takeout, to accommodate workers at the nearby bustling Shadelands business park. Just as in Italy, if you dine in dishes are $2 more than if you have the items packaged in environmentally sensitive cartons for takeout. However, if you have the time, I recommend taking a break and enjoying the surroundings and the food at a table. Pretend you are sitting in a café in Tuscany or Umbria, even if it is only for a few minutes. You will find yourself relaxing and wishing you actually were in Italy.
There is an assortment of pasta dishes, $10 in or $8 to go, that feature freshly made cannelloni, lasagna, ravioli or tagliatelle. The eggplant Parmigiana was an option as was a cold seafood salad overflowing with calamari, shrimp, octopus, diced vegetables and olive oil. Very light and refreshing without that fishy odor, indicating that the seafood was indeed fresh. The lasagna con ragu di carne was a very generous serving brimming with cheese and meat sauce. You can really appreciate the fresh lasagna noodles anchoring the dish and the delicate blend of cheeses that were not overwhelmingly heavy or rubbery. A good value whether dining in or out. A side dish of Caprese salad was equally light and refreshing with slices of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala interspersed with basil and drizzled with olive oil. We added a slight drizzle of balsamic vinegar to round out the flavors. If you are a fan of rapini, the bitter greens known as broccoli rabe, you will be pleased by the 54 Mint version, lightly sautéed in olive oil and garlic with a squeeze of lemon.
Secondi feature an assortment of meatier dishes that are $12 dining in or $10 to go at lunch. These dishes are predominantly meat-based and include a pork rib stew, a rotisserie-roasted half chicken and meatballs in a tomato sauce.
The dinner menu is more in line with its San Francisco counterpart. The takeout option, while still available, is not encouraged. Taking advantage of the terrific service and bustling kitchen ambiance is the preferred method to enjoy your meal. The menu is much more sophisticated, with antipasti such as the carpaccio di polipo – octopus carpaccio served with shaved fennel olive oil and smoked paprika; scaglie di parmigiano reggiano con stravecchio – 24-month aged parmigiano reggiano with aged stravecchio balsamic vinegar; and brasato di pancia di maiale – braised pork belly with sautéed cannellini beans and dandelion greens with balsamic vinegar, to name a few. Or you can opt to go for a selection of salumi e formaggi that features imported cured meats and cheeses. This is authentic Italian dining at its finest.
Primi e secondi dishes are sure to bring you back to thoughts of Umbria, Tuscany and southern Italy. Pappardelle ai funghi, homemade pappardelle with seasonal mushrooms, was one of my household staples growing up, as was the lasagna con ragu di carne that is also served at lunch. My mother’s version had mini meatballs dispersed throughout. This version has a ground meat consistency. Chicken and spinach cannelloni will leave you wanting more as will the tagliatelle ai frutti di mare – ribbon pasta tossed with shrimp, clams, mussels and baby squid. My next visit is sure to involve the stracotto d’Agnello al vino rosso con patate e rapini – red wine braised leg of lamb with mashed potatoes and the addictive broccoli rabe.
While the prices are a little more expensive than you may be used to in a restaurant in a local strip mall, given the quality of the food, they are more than appropriate. Desserts, $5 at lunch and $7 at dinner, are substantial and shareable. There is not much of a choice but you should be able to satisfy your sweet tooth with one of these options: tiramisu, crostata di frutta, chocolate and almond cake or profiterole.
Ricciolini has put together a fantastic menu that makes you want to keep coming back. He mentioned that he plans to implement a Sunday brunch chock full of additional Italian delicacies and hopes to open a bakery to make the bread he dreams of for his restaurant. Until then, we’re “stuck” with authentic, delicious Italian fare and a menu that has something for everyone in the family. Buon appetito!
54 Mint Rosticceria & Formaggi
785 Oak Grove Road, Suite 4