Whether it’s pillows of gnocchi, spaghetti strings or the twisted strands of casarecce, the homemade pasta dishes at Matt Solimano’s Sfizio make one forget that other Italian restaurants exist. Even though Solimano, whose heritage is Italian, claims his culinary approach isn’t solely defined by that boot-shaped country. While he was on a train to San Jose, the chef described his cuisine to me as, “Californian and Mediterranean.” Offering evidence of other countries’ influences, he mentioned recent dishes that included a Mexican salsa and Middle Eastern tahini.
“It’s more about cooking the things that I like to do and not necessarily being beholden to Italian food, which is delicious but does have a very strong tradition,” Solimano explained. “One of the things I love about living in California, and eating here, is all the delicious produce and mixture of cultures.” Pasta is central to Sfizio’s menu, but the finished dishes aren’t repurposed from a cache of beloved family recipes. Except for that pesto sauce, which coats every nook and cranny of the casarecce and the perfectly blistered zucchini coins.
Growing up, Solimano recalled making “batches and batches” of pesto with his family every summer. “We would go down to the market, when you could buy bunches of basil for cheap, and we would spend two hours with the food processor making it,” he said. “So I’ve always loved pesto, and I don’t mess around with it.” This season he’s been able to source fresh basil at the South Berkeley Farmers’ Market. “We get 30 bunches a week, blend it with herbs, cheese, nuts, a little olive oil and salt and pepper.”
During the pandemic, the chef, who used to work at Pizzaiolo, started Sfizio as a pop-up with a friend. “I told him my dream about starting a pasta place,” Solimano said. “It’s been something I thought about for years. I just love making pasta, and cooking it is so much fun.” What began as a whim is now, three years later, situated on the busy corner of Claremont Avenue and 62nd Street, in one of Noodle Theory’s old locations.
Though not strictly vegetarian, his menu is filled with inventive approaches to making exquisitely cooked vegetables. The asparagus starter ($10) is grilled until it’s as juicy and tender as a seared lamb chop. There’s a striking rich red dollop of romesco sauce on the plate, mined with crunchy black cracked peppercorns. Slivers of pecorino alight upon the plate. The combination of all three flavors initiates an umami high.
Sfizio just sent out an email announcing that gnocchi, Solimano’s “labor of love,” will only be served on Wednesdays. Last week, it was delivered with a heavenly pea purée, fresh snap peas and mint. “I learned to make gnocchi at the Heirloom Café in San Francisco,” he noted. Heirloom prepares it in a similar way. When a customer places an order for it, after it’s initially cooked, the chef pan fries the pasta. “I like that little bit of crispness on the outside,” he said.
Solimano likes to make sauces with complementary textural elements. “A couple of years ago, there was all this great spring produce, and I put a little of it [the pea purée] down on the bottom of the plate and it just came together,” he explained.
Before Sfizio opened, the chef took a trip to Italy. He brought a meaningful mission statement back home with him. “One of the things that was so beautiful about eating there, you go to all these restaurants and, often, they’re all serving the same thing,” he said. But each place makes its own variation on the same theme. “Food in Italy doesn’t feel stuffy—it’s all about the soul.”
In Italy, it doesn’t matter how the vegetables are cut or that everything has to look perfect on the plate. “It’s more that the food feels right, and that’s something that really appeals to me,” Solimano said. “I’ve worked in nicer restaurants and in food trucks and the really good ones have that soul.”
Sfizio, open Wed to Sat 5-10pm, Happy Hour (Kitchen closed) 3-4:30pm. 6099 Claremont Ave., Oakland. 510.229.8365. sfiziopasta.com.