The Mediterranean via the East Bay
Sequoia Del Hoyo laughs at the suggestion that she’s building a mighty, GOOP-like lifestyle brand. In 2015, she and Chef Andrew Vennari opened Sequoia Diner together in Oakland’s Laurel District. The diner had a profound impact on what was formerly a rather sleepy neighborhood.
Within a year, people from all over the Bay Area lined up outside to try the revelatory brunch menu, which led with homemade jam, biscuits and Sequoia’s welcoming demeanor. While her soon-to-be ex-husband Vennari curated hearty-yet-refined breakfasts, Del Hoyo made the diners feel right at home. If Malcolm Gladwell had lived nearby, he wouldn’t have failed to notice that the arrival of Sequoia Diner marked a tipping point.
Gladwell wrote in his 2000 bestseller, “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” One immediately felt something rare was at hand when they ate at the diner. Conscious of the Sequoia Diner’s success, several dynamic new restaurants have since opened on MacArthur Avenue in both the Laurel District and down the street in the Dimond District, including Bombera, Jo’s Modern Thai, Grand Lake Kitchen, La Perla and Degrees Plato.
During the pandemic last year, Del Hoyo and Vennari amicably separated, while also continuing to work—and raise their son—together. They shifted their business model from a friendly eat-in restaurant to a to-go establishment. Which, honestly, no matter where one went, felt more like an awkward interaction in the hallway of a junior high school. Tarocco, Del Hoyo’s new catering business, originated in the thick of that pandemic mess.
“I had all of these customers from the diner, mainly women, who were reaching out to me saying that they were homeschooling and needed healthy meals delivered,” she says. She and Vennari had reduced the diner staff by 80%. “I was home with our three-year-old son, feeling lonely and that I wasn’t eating healthy food,” she says. After thinking about what she could realistically accomplish, Del Hoyo started by making four meals for a handful of people, with snacks and proteins. “Right off the bat, I had about 40 clients.” She realized that was more than she could handle on her own, so she hired Chef Carlo Espinas.
Tarocco is named after a type of blood orange. Del Hoyo’s father is a Catalonian from Barcelona, and she says, “Catalans consider themselves more Mediterranean than Spanish.” That Mediterranean diet is her main inspiration for creating the meals on Tarocco’s menu. Guided by the seven “elements of the Mediterranean lifestyle,” Del Hoyo and Espinas make “plant-forward” meals on Monday and Tuesday for Wednesday deliveries. Espinas, who also recently took over the Lede restaurant from Cal Peternell, says they source seasonal ingredients.
When I spoke with Del Hoyo, her afternoon plan included a trip to the Grand Lake Farmers Market. Espinas says that Del Hoyo conceives of the week’s menu, does the shopping and then they collaborate and improvise to shape the final product. “Peppers are great right now,” Espinas says. “We recently made a roasted-pepper-and-tomato sauce to make a shakshuka.” They filled it with roasted eggplant and chickpeas. He says that since they’re not plating dishes in front of a diner, they have to think about food that will retain a meal kit’s freshness on its way out the door.
Del Hoyo’s culinary approach at Tarocco is also informed by her intolerance to gluten. “When I was 20 years old, someone suggested that I should avoid eating gluten and it totally changed my life,” she says. She’d suffered through eczema flare-ups, stomach issues and asthma because of Celiac disease. Del Hoyo went to Spain when she was in her 20s, only to discover that several members of her extended family were also Celiac. It confirmed for her that being gluten-intolerant was a real condition. “Everything at Tarocco is naturally gluten-free. I don’t like to use any fake products,” she says.
While Tarocco is plant-forward, Del Hoyo admits to being an omnivore. “I love meat, and we use meat that’s hormone-free,” she says. Mytarocco.com lists the seven tenets that inform “the Mediterranean Lifestyle,” but it also is a reflection of the owner’s spirit. Mint green and saffron bars of color alternate with vivid photos of enticing dishes and Del Hoyo’s inspiring epigrams, such as, “Tarocco is an extension of myself, and I am all about you living your best life.” She knows that on the outside someone could say she’s just making a meal. But after many years in the hospitality business where she’s always attentive to customers’ needs and wants, she says that, “Tarocco’s really about making people feel good. I’m trying to do more than just feed them.”
On Instagram this week, Del Hoyo announced she was leaving the diner that bears her name. She says that it is “deeply sad” but adds, “I’m going to be doing Tarocco full time, which is really exciting.” Sequoia Diner is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. For now, she’ll still be in the kitchen on those days prepping Tarocco meals. “Now, I’m like, alright, let’s see what we can both do on our own.”
Tarocco delivers meals to Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville. www.mytarocco.com