The Culinary Couple Behind Berkeley’s Corso and Rivoli

by Sarah Henry on May 28, 2011 · 25 comments

in berkeley bites,restaurants

Roscoe Skipper, Wendy Brucker, and Clive the dog, of Rivoli and Corso. Photo: Clay McLachlan

This is a story about a little neighborhood restaurant opened in 1994. A shared vision between two partners in work and life, who built an acclaimed destination dining space serving up fresh, homey food with complex flavors and nods to Italian, French, and Californian cuisine.

And it’s the story of how this culinary couple followed the success of their first eatery by opening an authentic Tuscan trattoria nearby three years ago. That place proved popular with critics and customers too.

This is also the story of the enduring power of friendship and love. Friendship, respect, trust, admiration, and love in the face of the demise of a long-term marriage, mind you, where two people who see the essential good in each other decide it’s a bad idea to stay together. And so they go their separate ways personally but manage, despite the initial challenges of seeing the ex every single day, to keep working together, as partners in a labor of love.

Six years post-separation and chef Wendy Brucker and general manager Roscoe Skipper, who run the restaurants Rivoli and Corso, are the proverbial poster pair for people whose commitment to each other remains solid in the face of the end of their marriage. Some regulars don’t even know the two aren’t a couple anymore; while it’s no secret, it’s not like the restauranteurs go out of their way to tell diners.

The couple met in the early days of their careers, when she was a line cook at Square One in San Francisco and he worked as a waiter. This year, both their restaurants made San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer’s Top 100 list. (The third year in a row for Corso Trattoria, where chef Rodrigo da Silva runs the day-to-day operations. Rivoli’s been a regular on the list since 1996).

At a table overlooking the lush garden at Rivoli, Brucker, 52, who grew up in Berkeley and lives, with her boyfriend, in the home she and Skipper still own together near the restaurant, talked about working with the man she calls her best friend.

Not to be outdone, Skipper, 53, who lives  in Oakland, quoted poet Thomas Gunn to describe his feelings for Brucker.

How do you do it?

Skipper: We need each other. I couldn’t do what I do here without Wendy, she feels the same way, and we wouldn’t want to keep doing this without the other.

Brucker: He’s the biggest fan of what I do with food and he’s the best general manager I’ve ever worked with. I don’t want to work with anyone else. And I still laugh at his jokes.

How would you describe your restaurants?

Skipper: Rivoli is not a concept restaurant, it’s an expression of who we are. I think of it as Gary Danko on a budget. Anyone who has been to Italy knows there is no such thing as Italian food, it’s regional cuisine, and that’s what we’re doing with Corso, bringing a Florentine eating experience to Berkeley.

Brucker: Of course I want people to enjoy our food and service but I also want them leaving our restaurants feeling better than when they came in. The world out there is often hard, we strive to provide a soft shoulder.

Does the Chronicle‘s Top 100 List carry the same weight in the age of Yelp and citizen food reviews?

Skipper: It used to be you’d see an uptick in diners after the list came out, that doesn’t happen any more. But Michael Bauer’s opinion of what a quality restaurant is here still matters.

What have you learned from experience that might be instructive for a new generation of restauranteurs?

Brucker: There’s something to be said for just putting in the work. We did it the hard way: our own money, long hours, and a commitment to quality, integrity and just serving up really good food, which is why we’ve lasted as long as we have. I also worked for others and learned from others for about 15 years. That’s important. There’s a lot of technique that goes onto the plate at Rivoli and Corso, even stuff I learned at culinary school comes back to me sometimes.

What’s missing in the Berkeley dining scene?

Skipper: Anchor businesses like Pixar that can support high-end restaurants like ours. In San Francisco, people are spending other people’s money; when they go out for a meal they’re often on an expense account. In Berkeley, people are paying out of their own pocket.

Where do you like to eat out around town?

Brucker: I don’t eat out much. I do like the fried chicken and burgers at 900 Grayson. It’s simple food but it’s good quality and well done.

Skipper: I eat out a lot, mostly in San Francisco and Oakland. I like Great China in downtown Berkeley. The Peking duck is good, the Chinese banquet is something; there’s a reason there’s a line out the door.

What’s next?

Skipper: A French restaurant.

Brucker: A vacation in France.¬† You know what I’d love to do? I’d love to open a tiny place, maybe eight tables, I’d cook and Roscoe would work the floor and it would just be us, like it was 30 years ago, without all the frou-frou stuff. There aren’t many people our age still doing the work, like breaking down chickens and cleaning out the walk-in. But we are, and we’ll probably do this for 10-15 more years, if our bodies allow us. It’s what we do.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Living Large May 31, 2011 at 4:11 am

This sounds like a wonderful place. I have respect for anyone who can continue to work successfully together after they have split up. Love Clive the dog, too!

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Sarah Henry May 31, 2011 at 8:25 am

Agreed, Living Large. Don’t think many ex-couples could do it.

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NoPotCooking May 31, 2011 at 9:25 am

What a fascinating relationship. I’ll bet the food reflects this.
NoPotCooking´s last [type] ..Grilled Pork Chops and Asparagus

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Jane Boursaw May 31, 2011 at 9:26 am

What an awesome, awesome story. I got goosebumps reading it, because mostly all you hear about ex’s is the fighting and awful stuff. What a pleasure to read about two people who really see the best in each other, but realize that they’re better as business partners and best friends than married partners.

And what a gorgeous dog! Those soulful eyes…
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..The Hunger Games 101

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Sarah Henry May 31, 2011 at 10:59 am

I know what you mean, Jane. It’s so rare to read (or find) a story like this one.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart May 31, 2011 at 10:14 am

I think it’s sad any time a long-term relationship / marriage ends. No matter the circumstances. It’s amazing to me that they continue to have such a good working relationship. Truly. Congratulations to them both on their success.

I’m particularly keen on the idea of anchor companies keeping restaurants afloat in some cities. It makes sense, I guess. But, where I live, people are indeed spending their own dollars.

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Sarah Henry May 31, 2011 at 11:00 am

Agreed, Roxanne, on all fronts.

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MyKidsEatSquid May 31, 2011 at 11:02 am

I’m impressed too that they’ve kept their friendship and professional life in tact. And the fact that Brucker is still doing much of the labor–those last few lines really got to me. Hard-working people. I’m happy for their success.

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Sarah Henry May 31, 2011 at 11:40 am

I was impressed, too, that Brucker talked about the physical demands of being in the kitchen for 30 years. Few last that long in the business, that’s for sure.

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Sheryl May 31, 2011 at 5:20 pm

What an amazing story of dedication – both on a personal and professional level. It takes special people to be able to put aside their differences and work successfully together to create something so wonderful.

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Sarah Henry June 1, 2011 at 7:02 am

These two don’t have kids together, but during the course of my interview I kept thinking what role models they could be for separating couples everywhere who must contend with how to handle the children when a marriage ends.

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Susan Johnston June 1, 2011 at 5:50 am

The fact that this pair was able to continue in a professional capacity even after their marriage ended really shows their commitment to what they’d built together. Good for them! I don’t think I could do that with any of my ex’s (but then, I’m also someone who wants to blaze her own path professionally rather than completing meshing her personal and professional life).

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Sarah Henry June 1, 2011 at 7:03 am

Susan, you hit on something that makes this story stand out in my mind: I suspect few couples who break up could continue to work together in a professional capacity.

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ruth pennebaker June 1, 2011 at 8:28 am

What a fascinating and touching story. I don’t think many people could do what they’re doing, but think it’s wonderful they’ve made it work.
ruth pennebaker´s last [type] ..Funny You Should Ask Where the Women Are

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Sarah Henry June 1, 2011 at 9:07 am

That seems to be the general consensus in the comment thread, Ruth. And judging by how popular these places are, am sure most diners would agree with you as well.

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Alisa Bowman June 1, 2011 at 9:11 am

That’s really interesting that they were able to make the business partnership work after the split. Very rare. I loved reading this.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..Yes- you will want to read this

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Sarah Henry June 2, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Hey, Alisa, right on topic for you, yes? I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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Jennifer Margulis June 2, 2011 at 9:43 am

I’m glad they are able to work together even post divorce. I’m always sad when couples split, though. I’d like to go to these two restaurants some day!

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Sarah Henry June 2, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Add them to your list, next time your in town, Jennifer.

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merr June 5, 2011 at 7:06 pm

I imagine that if they could work out a way to remain fond of each other, and respect one another to the extent they have, their restaurant must be a heavenly place filled with feelings of goodwill and mutuality. What a special, unique find. And what a story.

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Sarah Henry June 5, 2011 at 9:20 pm

And what a lovely way to sum up their situation, merr, thanks for your insights.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi June 6, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Wow, that must have been a strain, especially at first, but good on them for sticking it out on the professional front, even if the personal front didn’t work out.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Lemon Honey Soother

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