There was a time, in the long history of Oakland’s Oliveto restaurant, that owner Bob Klein used to make matzah balls for his staff every Passover.
“At a restaurant like this, we have really good chicken stock,” he said. “I’d take that and make matzah balls for the staff, not that there were many Jews among them, but they were loved.”
Why did he stop? “I probably lost track of when Passover is.” But now that the topic has resurfaced, “I’ll do it again this year,” he said.
Klein and his wife, Maggie, own and manage the Rockridge Italian restaurant that is now in its 28th year. Asked how Oliveto has managed to stay in business so long, he said stubbornness had a lot to do with it.
“We try to improve every day, in big ways and little ways,” he said. “We ask ourselves, How is the coffee? Can we make it better? I also think we stay away from trends and try to focus on true values. We also really try to take care of people.”
Given the regular openings and closings of Bay Area restaurants, clearly they’re doing something right.
But one might wonder how a Jewish guy from West Los Angeles got into the Italian restaurant business in the first place. Of course, there’s a backstory.
Klein grew up in a “food-lazy family,” where they ate sirloin steak that went straight from the freezer to the broiler, and Chef Boyardee. He attended a Conser-vative synagogue and had a bar mitzvah. “Early on, there were a lot of positive things about Judaism that I responded to.” Lenny Bruce’s Jewish vs. goyish routine was one of them, Klein said.
On a more serious note, he said he liked the idea of a people of law (Torah) and appreciated that intellect was valued. “I also saw how Judaism was often affiliated with civil rights and progressive politics, which was to be proud of, though it’s harder to find that now.”
Before getting into the restaurant business, Klein worked in television, producing such shows as “Pacific Currents” and “Bay Area Backroads.” But at some point, he wanted a change of pace. He and Maggie had fallen in love with Italian food after numerous visits to Europe and wanted to be able to eat the same kind of rustic, delicious food here at home. In the years before Oliveto, Maggie wrote the book “Feast of the Olive: Cooking with Olives and Olive Oil” and worked for U.C.’s agricultural publications.
While neither had a culinary background, their awareness about food developed on those trips to Europe. “I think it was this way for our whole generation,” he said. “You grow up with bland food and then you experience life and travel and you get more interested in it. It’s part of growing up.”
Back then, when Maggie would make dinner for friends, the guests would inevitably say, “This is so good you should own a restaurant.”
“Most people are smart enough not to,” Klein quipped, “but we wanted to control our own fate. Once we decided we should do this, I don’t think we thought about another business. It’s much like everything we’ve ever done, putting one foot in front of the other.”
Oliveto is known as a local leader in the sustainable, farm-to-table movement, regularly putting on seafood dinners, in which every fish is sustainably sourced and caught, and whole hog dinners (“Jews love pork, it’s a fact,” he noted with a laugh).
It’s also the place where many of the Bay Area’s younger chefs and restaurateurs get their start (Arnon Oren of caterer Oren’s Kitchen and Monica Rocchino of The Local Butcher Shop, both previously profiled in this column, have Oliveto experience on their resumes.)
One of Klein’s more recent projects is Community Grains, a heritage-wheat pasta company he launched in 2010.
Much of conventional wheat has been stripped of its nutritional value, with fillers added back in to qualify it for the “whole grains” designation in supermarkets, he said. “There’s a serious abundance of misinformation and dishonesty.”
So how do you make sure that consumers get the right information? “You build an alternative system with full transparency, every step along the way,” he said.
Community Grains’ products were at first meant to be used in the restaurant, but that plan quickly expanded.
While the “vision is immense,” Klein said, “the actual [end-product] is teeny-weeny.” Community Grains mills its wheat in a unique way, he said. It’s 100 percent whole grain, with all the bran and germ in it, but is milled much more finely, giving it a smooth texture.
For some varieties, the box specifies where the wheat was grown and milled.
In addition to being sold at Whole Foods, Community Grains’ product is being served in whole-grain macaroni and cheese lunches in the Oakland Unified School District.
What motivates Klein to do what he does? Many things, he said, not least of which is that “I’m a nut for transparency in ethics matters. I think that’s certainly part of our tradition.”