It shouldn’t feel like a mirage to find an affordable restaurant serving freshly made pasta for under $20. But with inflation causing food prices to remain high, it sure does feel like a menu misprint to see a restaurant committed to keeping prices low. It’s not that chef Matt Solimano isn’t already aware of the high-priced food that proliferates across the Bay Area. He is. (And he understands why.) But with Sfizio opening in the Oakland neighborhood of Rockridge, he’s hoping to offer something different for locals: a restaurant that keeps affordability in mind but still offers a high-quality product, freshly made, with the seasonal ingredients for which California is known. “Noodle Theory mentioned it when they closed, they basically said, ‘If we have to charge $25 for a bowl of noodles, then it’s not worth running,’” Solimano says. “That’s not the restaurant we want, and so part of me wants to say, ‘Let’s see, let’s start low.’”
Sfizio made a name for itself during the pandemic as a fresh pasta pop-up that made its rounds through the East Bay, built not only on affordability but also Solimano’s pasta-making skills. Showing up at places including Way Station Brew, Ramen Shop, and Degrees Plato, the pop-up offered an assortment of pasta and starters throughout the seasons, such as a house-smoked steelhead salmon with little gems, creme fraiche, and chives, or the (now) fan-favorite meatballs served on a bed of spaghetti or in sandwich form. Still, despite the pop-up’s following, Solimano — having worked as a sous chef at Pizzaiolo, and at pop-up June’s Pizza, among other places — sought to open a permanent restaurant that served food on real plates, rather than in takeout containers with plastic silverware. The idea for Sfizio is in part inspired by chef Mike Easton’s Il Corvo in Seattle, which served $10 plates of pasta for lunch until its closure in 2020. Although Sfizio will be open for dinner only (and a smidge pricier than $10), the sentiment of affordability remains.
Having toured Sfizio over the last three years, and now with this new space, Solimano says he already has a feel for what works. Sfizio won’t have a sprawling menu, but that’s been Sfizio’s M.O. from the start. Food offerings will be a tight menu of three to four items each for starters and pastas, with a dessert or two to round things out. The ever-popular meatballs will be on the opening menu, as promised, but from there Solimano will roll with what’s coming into the farmer’s market. The operation will be casual, with diners ordering items at a front counter, then sitting down and having dishes brought out to the table.
To kick things off, expect starters such as grilled asparagus on a bed of romesco sauce with shavings of pecorino on top, or grilled squid tossed in a salsa negra sauce and plated with wilted scallions and fresh bites of purslane. On the pasta side, one dish features cavatappi folded into a vibrant green pesto sauce, with snap peas and green onion; bucatini is also featured on the starting menu, in a version of cacio e pepe, but starring fresh English peas. Solimano’s also been working on gluten-free pasta and landed on a version he likes, which will be a pasta substitution option on the menu at all times. Pastas will be priced at about $16, with one dish consistently clocking in at $10 (in this case, it’s the spaghetti option, tossed in a tomato sauce with basil and grana padano cheese, with the chance to add on the meatballs for $6 more).
Much like the food menu, the wine list will be brief, but continues Solimano’s credo of affordability, keeping drink offerings “short, succinct, and sweet,” he says. The wine list will focus on bottles from Italy, sold by the glass in the $8 to $12 range, such as a vermentino from Sardinia for $12, or a Chianti from Tuscany at $8.50. There will also be a couple of beer options — a lager from Wondrous Brewing, and an IPA from Cellarmaker — as well as three low-ABV options like the Bianco Spritz made with Berto bianco vermouth, prosecco, and thyme, or the Sfizio, a concoction made with Cardamaro vermouth amaro, mezzura, lime, and tonic water. On weekends, ahead of service, Sfizio will open from 3 to 5 p.m. for a happy hour, when drinks are served alongside complimentary snacks until dinner starts for the day.
The interior is updated from its former days as Noodle Theory Provision, which closed last fall, and is swathed in peach earth tones and accents of dark green. The green was initially a suggestion from Solimano’s wife, which proved to be an inspired choice — their trip to Italy in January proved the color combination a favorite throughout the places they visited. “I love how the color turned out, and it kind of reminds me of Italy in a super cheesy way,” Solimano says. There’s also the addition of industrial-looking light shades and brass lamps from Dorset Finds in Berkeley, as well as a plant or two to add a touch of greenery. It’s all about creating that environment that Solimano always saw himself serving pasta in. “When I was looking at places that I really enjoyed,” Solimano says, “I was drawn a lot to things that are more considered a cafe, I feel like they often have more of a bright, relaxed feel. And so that was something that I wanted to bring out, that sort of sunny day, chill music, hanging out, California vibes.”
Sfizio (6099 Claremont Avenue, Oakland) debuts Wednesday, May 10, and is open 5 to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.