Summary: Good Italian food in a child-friendly cordial place.
It was our last night without children - they were at their grandparents but due to return the next day. I was in the mood for Italian, and I wanted to go out. Alas, I also wanted to go to a place I had not reviewed before (otherwise my choice would have been Buon Appetito in Hayward). Zza's seemed like a good idea. I'd been to Zza's before, many years ago, when Mika was a toddler and my parents-in-law were in town. I remembered it as a place with good, fresh food and very child friendly. I was spot on.
Zza's is a very friendly neighborhood restaurant on Grand Avenue, just across from Lake Merritt. Inside, it's crowded and convivial and just fun. Tables are covered by paper and crayons are provided so your kids, or you, can have fun drawing while waiting for your food. They also have a bar area, with "nicer", adults only seating. There are two outside tables on the street, alas, without a heat lamp.
We got there at around 7:30 PM on a Friday night in July 2007. The place was a madhouse. The usual crowd had been enhanced by a crew from Eye On The Bay, a local TV program, that was filming at the restaurant. There were no tables inside, and we had a choice of a 30-40 minute wait for a table inside or to sit outside on a chilly night. We decided to sit outside, what the heck, we can stand a little cold. In all it wasn't too bad, even though we were in short sleeves, though we did get goose bumps when the wind blew.
Zza's menu includes pizzas, pastas and some heavier dishes. I wanted pasta, and decided on the Gnocchi della Casa ($14), home made gnocchi in a tomato sauce with bacon and fontina. Mike had the Calzone Classico ($13) "with Housemade Italian sausage, greens, tomato, ricotta & mozzarella." We had sodas, as you can't order alcoholic beverages if you sit outside.
The meal started with white bread (pretty good) accompanied by what I found to be an inedible olive spread. It was extremely olivy and salty. I think if you love olives, you'll like it - but it was too intense for me. Too bad they didn't serve butter or oil as well.
The gnocchi was very good; it was dense and yet not chewy or overly heavy - just solid. I didn't think they had much in the way of flavor by itself (but then again, gnocchi seldom does), but the tomato sauce was very good, nicely spiced with an amiable tang. It benefitted from the Fontina cheese and the bacon, which provided a needed smokiness and crunch. Alas, there wasn't much bacon on the plate; a little more would certainly enhance the dish. I'm still not sure whether I preferred it with or without Parmesan cheese. The cheese was clearly freshly grated and had an intense flavor of its own. Perhaps the flavors just competed, but I did like the Parmesan in itself.
Mike said he liked his calzone. They had certainly not skimped on any of the fillings, and they were very well balanced. They also tasted like fresh ingredients. He'd order it again.
Dessert was a warm chocolate cake with "Jack Daniels butter pecan gelato & raspberry sauce" ($7.50). The cake was not too warm and it resembled a brownie or a flourless cake. I liked it, or what there was of it, though I felt it was a little bit stale. Mike was less fond of it. The ice cream tasted like coffee ice cream and it was very light, I liked it a lot. I didn't like the flavor of the raspberry sauce. I didn't think it went with the other flavors at all. If I ordered the dessert again, I'd ask them to skip the sauce.
Service was a little bit out of whack, both because we were outside (out of sight, out of mind) and because they were so busy with the camera crew. Still, it was just a bit slow, nothing major. The owner, however, insisted on comping us dessert for our wait. I thought that was very, very nice.
In all, we had a lovely (if cold) evening and I'm looking forward to returning to Zza's again, this time with the kids.
552 Grand Ave