Have you been to Caffe 817 lately? Opened in 1993, this sunny hangout in Old Oakland changed hands last year. While the name and the Italian inspiration remains the name, new owners Scott and Emily Goldenberg have made the place their own. The couple, who met while both were working as sous-chefs at Zuni Cafe, are dedicated to bringing their love for local flavors and housemade products to downtown Oakland. At a recent breakfast for food writers and bloggers hosted by Oakland Local, Scott and Emily showcased a few of their favorite brunch items and talked about what they’re trying to do.
But first, what’s that alluring, elusive flavor–not cinnamon–in that bowl of crunchy, not-too-sweet organic granola? It’s cardamom, a legacy of Emily’s Norwegian heritage. (Throughout Scandanavia, cardamom is a commonly addition to sweet breads and morning pastries.) Nutmeg’s in there, and an herby-citrusy burst of coriander, too, tossed into a hearty mix of organic nuts, seeds, and grains.
Granola may not be Italian, but the coffee certainly is, or at least as Italian as you can get without leaving the West Coast. The Goldenbergs stock Mr. Espresso beans, which Emily describes as “as local as local can be,” since their beans are roasted over oak just a few blocks away on 3rd Street close to Jack London Square. The family-run business was founded by the Italian-born Carlo Di Ruocco, who got his start as an importer of espresso machines. The Di Ruocco family “come in for coffee all the time,” Emily notes, while praising the “real Italian profile” of their beans. The Di Ruoccos were one of the first roasters in the area to source organic and certified fair-trade beans.
While Scott works the poached-egg maker–which he describes, with pride, as “an old-school piece of Italian gadgetry,” Emily urges us to dress up our levain toast with a spoonful of one of her housemade winter preserves, including spiced apple butter, mandarin orange marmalade, and kiwi jam.
But I can’t resist ducking behind the counter to get a closer look at that egg poacher. It’s a tall, streamlined metal box, with hot water in the base topped by a perforated metal insert. “It’s an old thing that doesn’t break,” marvels Scott as he cracks eggs into individual ceramic cups, then lowers them into the insert. Once the lid is shut, the eggs cook fast but gently, bain-marie style, in the circulating steam. A quick scoop around with a rubber spatula, and a perfectly shaped, consistently tender egg pops out, ready to be perched atop a slice of olivada-smeared levain toast or nestled into a dish of chunky, satisfying corned-beef hash. The corned beef starts with grass-fed brisket (sourced, depending on the season, from local Marin Sun Farms or South Dakota’s Storm Hill Beef Cooperative) that’s brined for five days, then slow-cooked overnight to get “uberdelicious,” as Emily calls it.
We also get to try the Italian toast, a slim pressed hot sandwich of Italian proscuitto cotto (cooked ham) with rosemary paired with a domestic Gruyere (made by Wisconsin-based Roth Kase) and a tangy slather of mostarda, made with dried figs, cherries, and raisins poached with spices and wine and then pureed into jam, a untraditional touch that turns it from chunky condiment into versatile spread.
So far, the neighborhood’s response to their freshened-up, seasonal menu has been strong. But since the name remains the same, Scott and Emily realize that many people, even formerly regular diners, may not yet know that the place is, in fact, new. It’s just one of many challenges; the Goldenbergs also welcomed the arrival of their first child recently. A new restaurant, a new baby, and they still find time to make their own jam and cure their own brisket! If that’s not a labor of love, what is?