Bagelmeister Noah goes kosher Italian in Berkeley

Chalk it up to the call of his faith — and his stomach. Noah is back in the food business.

But instead of baking bagels, Noah Alper has gone Italian this time.

Craving more kosher dining options this side of Brooklyn, Alper, an Orthodox Jew, recently opened the upscale — and kosher — Bar Ristorante Raphael in the heart of Berkeley's burgeoning arts district.

"I had this idea of doing a white-tablecloth place for a long time," said the 56-year-old Alper, whose new enterprise has a kosher seal of approval from the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco.

"I just felt there was a real need for it in the community, and I also felt the community would support it."

Despite the big switch in cuisine, the erstwhile owner of Noah's New York Bagels is sticking to first names when it comes to appellations.

Alper and his team of more than a half dozen partners selected Raphael, in a double nod to the Renaissance Italian painter and the angel bearing that name. Raphael translates into "God is my healer," according to Alper, and seemed to go well with the notion of a dairy restaurant.

The Center Street spot, complete with a brick pizza oven and open kitchen, is brushed in earthy hues and features hand-painted frescoes on the walls and ceiling. It sits on a major pedestrian thoroughfare a half-block from the U.C. Berkeley campus.

"We want people to walk in here and feel like they're stepping into Italy," said Alper's wife, Hope. The couple expects to spend some 20 hours weekly at Raphael, greeting patrons, organizing monthly special events and coordinating catering.

As for the obvious question, "Why Italian?" Alper notes that partner and executive chef Domenico Testa figured prominently into that choice of cuisine.

The Italian-born Testa, who is not Jewish, already runs another Italian restaurant, Caffe Delle Stelle in Walnut Creek.

But there were other factors as well.

Realizing that any kosher restaurant in the Bay Area needs to "compete in a non-kosher world," Alper surveyed the offerings in downtown Berkeley and concluded that a nice Italian place "would do well."

Open for lunch and dinner, Raphael serves vegetarian pasta dishes, pizza, antipasti and fish with occasional offerings of Cucina Ebraica, the traditional Jewish fare of Italy. Entrées and prices run from Bianca Neve pizza at $6.50 to Brodetto, an assortment of fish in white wine broth, at $16.75. The gelato is homemade. The menu also lists dishes available in vegan versions

The bar pours Italian and other beers along with a selection of international kosher wines. Alper expects to get a full liquor license in September.

A mashgiach, or kashrut overseer, will perform inspections two or more times weekly, according to Alper.

Initially closed on Sundays, Raphael will be up and running on Shabbat under a contract, or shtar mechirah, that transfers ownership to Testa on those days.

Similar to an arrangement Alper made at Noah's, the Shabbat operation is in response to "the economic realities of the area we live in," Alper said. "Basically, in the restaurant business, if you're not open on Friday and Saturday nights in the Bay Area, it's difficult."

Raphael joins a sparse landscape of kosher eateries in the Bay Area. Besides a handful of bagel shops, bakeries and markets, San Francisco has three kosher restaurants while Oakland has one.

"If you have someone who's strictly kosher, they have so few options," Alper said. "The frequency of visits will be tremendous. They're going to be here every week."

He also sees his restaurant as serving the wider Jewish community — attracting diners from throughout the Bay Area along with San Francisco tourists and convention-goers. He even thinks Raphael could spice up the region's appeal for Jewish educators, rabbis and scholars considering a move here.

"It's a piece of Jewish infrastructure that helps make a community attractive to people reluctant to go to somewhat of a Jewish outpost," he said.

Raphael, at 2132 Center St., is just a block from the Allston Way site targeted for the future home of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, a Jewish museum now in south Berkeley, and is across the street from the planned location of the Berkeley Art Museum. The Web site is

Alper's return to the culinary world already has generated some ripples of excitement in the neighborhood.

Sipping a cup of Starbucks coffee a few doors up from Raphael, Alper, looking trim and professorial in a blue short-sleeved shirt, recounted a previous visit when the barista called Noah's name, looked up at the man whose photo had been a fixture in many of his bagel shops, and said, "Did anyone ever tell you you look like the Noah of Noah's?"

But the Alpers are banking on the lure of good food, not Noah's name, in their latest enterprise.

Operating a kosher restaurant in a foodie capital with a dispersed and largely assimilated Jewish population admittedly is "not an easy go," Alper said.

"It has to be top quality to the non-kosher diner as well," said Alper, who thinks he's created a restaurant that is just that. "The emphasis is on the food."

With a facility capable of seating 60 diners in the main restaurant, 18 more at the bar and another 20 on a wide sidewalk outside, "I think it will be a meeting place and a gathering place for a lot of people," said Alper.

He predicts the restaurant will have a large vegetarian following.

Alper traces his yearning to open a kosher restaurant to 1998. He and his family had returned to their Berkeley home after spending a year in Israel following the 1996 sale of Alper's then-kosher, 38-store chain of Noah's Bagels outlets to Einstein Bagel Corp. in Colorado.

His dream was put on hold while Alper served as founding president of the new Jewish Community High School of the Bay. When Alper stepped down last summer from that post, he shifted his focus to the restaurant.

"Noah's been talking to everyone over the years about opening a kosher restaurant," said Hope Alper.

Through a fellow congregant at Berkeley's Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel, Alper met Testa, sampled his cooking, liked it — and ultimately formed a partnership.

Alper had already considered a couple of concepts, including a "Chinese rice-bowl place" that never materialized. But in his searching and networking, Alper "looked on this block" and discovered that a spot, formerly occupied by another Italian restaurant, was becoming available.

As part of the renovations, the Alpers hired Italian artist Migele Teora to paint the frescoes, including a large reproduction of Raphael's "The School of Athens" and a recessed ceiling mural depicting two angels holding a billowing cloth on a blue sky.

The Athens painting, with its portrayal of Socrates, Plato and other philosophers, seemed appropriate for a Jewish restaurant so close to a major institute of learning, according to Alper.

He said his years at Noah's made this startup relatively smooth. "I know to expect delays, and I know to push and not just to expect things to fly through."

He also knows not to install linoleum.

When he did that at the original Noah's on College Avenue, the floor "lasted about six weeks." At Raphael, the floor is a more durable concrete.

While some commodities, such as a variety of hard cheeses, will be imported from Italy and elsewhere, the produce is coming from a decidedly local source.

The Alper's oldest son, 26-year-old Jesse, will supply Raphael with lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables he grows on a 4-acre organic farm near Half Moon Bay.