To sustain a no reservations policy, a restaurant must be very popular and very good, not just in the kitchen but in the front of the house, too. Nothing aggravates hungry people more than uncertainty, and how the peckish are handled from the moment they walk through the door determines whether they will flock back.
Fearfully, I arranged to meet two impatient East Bay friends at Boot and Shoe Service, a second restaurant from Charlie Hallowell, whose great Pizzaiolo now does take reservations. I wanted to go back to Boot and Shoe (named after the shoe repair shop it converted into a restaurant) after a lush meal I had with like-minded food maniacs who didn’t care how long they had to wait as long as there was a payoff at the end.
I banked on Boot and Shoe’s sly little cocktails ($10)– an Italian aperitivo called La Donna Vecchia; a Housemade Tonic trendily made with both gin and vodka– to ease the tension. These perfectly composed cocktails did help, though my friends panicked when they heard how long it would take to be seated, 45 minutes to an hour.
Expect 30 minutes. Neighborhood regulars put their names on the list but find seats at a long, drafty counter along a brick wall, or at the communal table in the bar, which means that the wait for a table in the small dining room by the open kitchen really does shorten. The hostesses purposely overestimate the wait to prevent anxious hovering.
All that said, the farm to table, Cal-Italian, wood oven-centric cooking is redemptively lively and luscious. The genre may be very familiar, but I have rarely eaten tastier food of any kind, period.
Toasts from the wood burning oven make the ideal landing for burrata ($10). The taste of the fire on the bread seasons this barely fermented soft cheese. Tiny, brightly dressed arugula leaves add piquancy. Now, in winter, cut up chicories ($9) get a light, tarragon scented green goddess dressing with just the right amount of creaminess to offset the tang of peeled citrus segments scattered in the salad. A small plate of sea scallops ($18) are seared and crisp on their flat sides but soft and barely warm inside, a way of cooking them that teases out their natural sweetness and gives them variation in texture. With celery root puree and spinach sautéed with browned bits of green garlic, no sauce is needed.
Gemelli with long cooked duck or pork ragu ($16) is so meaty, deep in flavor and comforting, it never leaves the menu. You will not find a better plate of pasta anywhere. During tomato season, spicy fresh tomato sauce with green olives and albacore confit ($16) sparkled with startlingly al dente spaghetti. This radical, southern Italian undercooking of dried pasta also made a quieter, relish-like winter sauce of cauliflower, green garlic, saffron infused onions, hot pepper, pine nuts and currants interesting.
Everyone eats both pasta and pizza at Boot and Shoe, really delicious pizza, with soft, chewy, fire-licked crusts that stand up to juicy toppings. My favorite combines tomato sauce, house made sausage, medium hot Calabrian peppers and cream ($17). Another, dressed with tomato sauce, dabs of fresh ricotta, black olives and the peppers ($18) comes into its own with anchovies ($3). Be sure to order a side of fried brussels sprouts ($8). It seems as if everyone does them but Boot and Shoe’s hot and sour ones with caramelized edges are the best.
In keeping with the rest of the concise menu, dessert ($8) brings three choices, the most popular being a dense, creamy chocolate pot de crème, its sweetness excitingly undercut by espresso and flakes of sea salt.
In the noisy if bearable dining room, service efficiently and professionally clips along but never feels rushed. One intuitively gracious manager, who magically always seems to be on the floor, makes everyone feel welcome and wanted and cared for. Every restaurant, and especially those that don’t reserve, needs someone like her.
3308 Grand Avenue, Oakland 510 763-2668 Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.