Even when you get closer, make sure you've found the door, not the wall. One chilly night, the front door was sticking in the open position. Owner Howard Bulka kept coming out from the kitchen to close it.
Bulka did not have door duty in his previous job. He was executive chef at Marche in Menlo Park since it opened in 2001, having apprenticed with French master chefs Paul Bocuse and Alain Chapel. General manager and wine buyer Lisa Robins also comes from Marche.
And now for something completely different in Palo Alto: a very satisfying three-course dinner for two, including a bottle of wine, under $60. And pizza left over for breakfast.
Howie's Artisan Pizza employs a brick-lined, gas-fired oven, visible at the end of a long bar leading into the kitchen. The bar is a great place to nurse a slice of pizza and a glass of wine. There are 18 well-selected wines by the glass, from $4 to $9.50.
The 42-seat dining room gets partial privacy with sliding dividers. On the down side, the child next to us found the sliders irresistible, adding to the odd acoustics. Even with a carpeted floor, Howie's gets noisy. Open since Nov. 17, it's already become a place for Palo Alto families to run into each other.
Non-pizza eaters could easily make a meal of appetizers. Eight prawns ($9) were perfectly cooked, bathed in rich tomato-garlic sauce and served with crunchy garlic bread. Eggplant pillows ($7) are excellent but cold. Just so you know. Thin-sliced pillowcases of eggplant have been cooked sometime earlier, rolled around light but creamy house-made ricotta, served in a pool of olive oil blended with parsley, capers, chili flakes and shallots.
One beautifully dressed Caesar salad ($8) is easily enough for two. Crisp hearts of romaine are rough-cut and tossed with garlic croutons and loads of Parmesan. The mixed greens ($7) feature lively vinaigrette. For an entree salad, add herb-roasted chicken breast ($3).
The variety and depth of dressings and sauces are unusual for a pizza place, but Artisan is Howie's middle name. All pizzas are 14 inches in diameter. The options are eight combinations, do-it-yourself, or half this and half that. One side with tomato sauce, the other without; no problem, no extra charge.
We ordered half-bianco, half-fennel sausage, drawing on the four basic food groups. Bianco is a symphony of five cheeses, spiked with green onion and hot chili. Howie's mild house-made fennel sausage goes well with broccoli raab. Also known as rapini and rabe, this underappreciated vegetable has a slightly bitter, nutty flavor. As cookbook author Mark Bittman wrote last year in the New York Times, "Broccoli rabe can take whatever you throw at it and still shine."
The half-and-half pizza could have taken one minute longer in the oven, but the crust held up to all of its smoky, creamy, toothy toppings. It's a medium-thin crust with puffy edges. Next time, we got takeout, and the crust was nicely charred. That's the deal with artisan food. It's a little different each time.
This one was a basic cheese and tomato pie ($13) with pancetta ($2), cubed and superbly crispy.
Takeout is tricky. You don't want pizza or hot sandwiches to wait too long. By the time we got the grinder sandwich ($8) home, its toasted torpedo roll had drowned in oil and vinegar.
Howie's commendably reasonable wines recently featured Perfecta Sauvignon blanc at $12 a bottle. We often don't think of white wine with pizza, and we should. This one has a mineral tone that tastes good even with garlic.
Service was very attentive, up to the point when we'd finished our dinner and wanted to order dessert. Wave. No notice. Wave, and so on. Dessert is definitely worth waiting for, but not this long.
In palate-cleansing vanilla and peppermint, a Matterhorn of soft-serve ice cream ($4) can be topped with house-made butterscotch, superb hot fudge or candied orange/toasted almond ($1). The ice cream at Howie's Artisan comes from the local, organic Straus Family Creamery. Naturally.
Howie's Artisan Pizza
Town and Country Village
855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto
Hours: Daily 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Reservations: only for large parties
Credit cards: yes
Parking: shopping center
Alcohol: beer and wine
Outdoor dining: coming
Party facilities: no
Noise level: can be high
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent