Updated: Apr 20, 2021
Friday, April 18, 2014 - 00:05
Once upon a time - in 2004 - three friends decided to open a restaurant in Alameda. Since they were all Italian (two natives and an Italian-American), they figured it would be a good idea to feature Italian food and wine. They named their restaurant C'era Una Volta, which incidentally is Italian for "once upon a time." Eventually, one of the friends got homesick and returned to Italy. The others wished him well and redoubled their efforts to make their dream flourish. And flourish it did. But this is not the end of the story.
This month marks C'era Una Volta's 10-year anniversary. In an era when only three out of 10 restaurants make it to this point, it is quite an accomplishment for co-owners Cheryl Principato and Chef Rudy Duran.
Add to this a firm commitment to excellence in food, service, and atmosphere; an impressive list of awards (including recognition by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, an official cultural institution of the Italian government that reviews restaurants world wide for authenticity); and a distinguished record of service to the community, and you have not a Cinderella story, but a full-on saga.
I started going to C'era Una Volta in the early days. At that time, they were open every day at 7:00 a.m. (that is not a misprint, and it gives you some idea of the level of commitment it takes to launch a successful dining establishment). My friends and I would drop our children off at school and convene at the restaurant for coffee and pastries.
At the time, each of our group members were going through some serious hard times at home. Consequently, our "coffee break" turned into an informal support group and our visits could stretch on for hours. We couldn't believe they didn't throw us out. Instead, Rudy and Cheryl made us feel at home and never pressured us to order more or make ourselves scarce.
Sometimes, Rudy would whip up a frittata or some scrambled eggs, something not even on the menu, when one of our stressed-out number required more sustenance than pastry could provide. (Anything to stop the crying, I suppose!)
Eventually, the restaurant discontinued the early openings, but my regard for their kindness and generosity - not to mention their astounding work ethic - continues to this day.
Earlier this month, my husband and I reserved everybody's favorite table at C'era Una Volta - an out-of-the-way niche on the first floor nicknamed "the Cove." Regulars know to reserve it in advance for romantic dinners or hush-hush business meetings, and now you do, too.
C'era Una Volta's dining room has a wonderfully pleasing ambiance. Its style, which harkens back to Chef Rudy's culinary roots in Tuscany, is present yet understated. Paintings by local artists are displayed and changed periodically.
The lighting, while subdued, never forces the aging diner to long for a flashlight just to read the menu. The kitchen opens onto a reception area in a separate room, so the noise level is never a problem.
Each table is served fresh bread with a bowl of olive oil dotted with mustard for dipping.
Wine is big at C'era Una Volta, as it is in many Bay Area eateries, but the focus here is on Italian wines and food pairings. Both Rudy and Cheryl are members of the North American Sommelier Association.
My husband and I can never resist starting with the melt-in-your mouth burrata mozzarella cheese, served with mixed greens, tomatoes, basil, and a balsamic reduction. Burrata is solid mozzarella on the outside with a mixture of cheese and cream underneath. If you think of mozzarella as chewy or dense, you're in for a treat. You'll be tempted to order seconds. They also serve the traditional Caprese salad, which is wonderful as well. We accompanied our appetizer with a half bottle of Carpeni Malvolti Prosecco from the extensive wine list.
For our "primi piatti" (meaning "first dish" since, in Italy, pasta is served before the entree), I had penne with smoked salmon in cream sauce. My husband's pasta was served with a Chianti meat sauce. Both were excellent. I saved half of mine to have room for the rest of the meal and ate it for lunch the next day. Reheating it in the microwave did nothing to diminish my adoration.
For our "secondi piatti" (or second dish), we ordered a special filet mignon, cooked to order with a heavenly sauce made with Straveccio Branca, an Italian brandy. The garlic mashed potatoes that accompanied the meal are among the best we've ever tasted, so light and creamy I'd love to know the secret.
As we often do, we brought our own wine to have with the meal, which the waiter graciously decanted without being asked, making the corkage fee that much easier to bear.
For dessert, we had the tiramisu, possibly the best we've ever tried, and neither of us is a big fan of coffee-flavored desserts. This is an exception.
As usual, both Rudy and Cheryl stopped by our table to see how everything was. Both were looking forward to their respective vacations, a rare occurrence for anyone in the restaurant business but even rarer for restaurant owners. Cheryl bound for another island to do as little as possible and Rudy, to meet his new grandchild, Mario, back in Italy. He proudly showed us a picture on his cell phone of a baby in a hospital bassinet who appeared to be making a (shall we say) controversial gesture. We all agreed this was indicative of a strong character.
I congratulated them on their 10-year anniversary as a rare achievement. Rudy just shrugged it off. "When we started," he said, "we planned to just keep going, so that's what we did. It's what we do. We just keep going."
The moral of the story: Hard work, high standards and determination aren't just about a happy ending. They're about a story worth telling, again and again.
C'era Una Volta, 1332 Park Street (in Redwood Square); 769-4828. Open six days a week from noon to 8:00 p.m. Open for lunch, brunch, and dinner. Closed Mondays.