Italian restaurant: Walnut Creek Prima chef-owner taking over Berkeley's  Corso

As life-shattering as it was to close his Walnut Creek restaurant, Prima, as a result of pandemic-related financial hardship, executive chef-owner Peter Chastain thinks that everything happens for a reason. He even said it in a note posted on the door that fateful day in July.

“I believe that when we look back on all of this someday, we will see it as having happened FOR us rather than TO us,” the note read.

Now, Chastain, a native of Berkeley who developed Prima into a pinnacle of Italian fine dining over 21 years, is saving another beloved trattoria that fell victim to the pandemic economy. He has taken over Corso at 1788 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, and plans to re-open it as Via del Corso in June with his team from Prima, including chef de cuisine Massimo Orlando and general manager Marco Penitenti. The eatery will also have a new 20-seat parklet for al fresco seating.

Corso’s owners, Chastain’s long-time friends Wendy Brucker and Roscoe Skipper, are retiring.

“I always loved Corso,” Chastain says. “In many ways, it’s the perfect restaurant: small, super popular and in my hometown. I’ve come full circle.”

Chastain says that since the announcement was made on Instagram, Corso regulars have been calling with gushing welcomes and pressing questions. Will the steak alla Fiorentina stay on the menu? Can they still get the pollo al burro, or chicken cooked in butter? What about the chocolate budino? Yes, yes and yes.

“The steaks might be cut a little thicker and our pasta has a bit more egg in it because Massimo is from Emilia-Romagna and we like the texture from that region, but yes we will bring back the favorites,” Chastain says.

Via del Corso is named after the historic main boulevard in central Rome filled with piazzas, churches and foreign embassies. Like Prima, it will feature staples and seasonal dishes from regions throughout Italy, as opposed to focusing on Florentine cuisine, like Corso did.

Read this and get your reservation in Italian Restaurant there.

“We want to be able to do a Brodetto di Pesce (Adriatic-style seafood stew) or a Tuscan wild boar ragu on pappardelle,” Chastain says. “Massimo and I are really sympatico in our values of how we cook. Just the best ingredients stewarded so they can shine.”

Chastain did that with gusto for 21 years, with Orlando cooking beside him for 17 of them. And while co-owner John Rittmaster decided to stay on and keep the adjacent wine shop, Prima Vini, open, there was no way the restaurant could have survived.

“We were just not going to be able to pivot to groceries or delivery in a financially-relevant way,” Chastain recalls. “We had a large staff and even with the PPP money, we weren’t able to pay them. And we couldn’t get the landlord to make any concessions, so the more we talked, the more we realized we needed to close. It was a really scary decision.”

It was especially scary for Chastain, who has been working in kitchens almost nonstop since the age of 12. A summer of “sitting on the couch watching Netflix and drinking bourbon” finally spurred him into change mode. That’s when he started going on long walks with Brucker, an old friend who was grappling with the tough decision to close her own restaurant.

“They didn’t know what do,” he says. “I’m glad it worked out.”


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