Beyond pizza

Downtown Palo Alto's Pizzeria Delfina offers tasty Italian dishes, full bar

Psst. Three-month-old Pizzeria Delfina is popular and noisy. At lunchtime or any night after 6:30 p.m., write your name on the chalkboard out in front and feed your anticipation with a crowd of fellow trendsters.

It's fun to be around so many people having a good time, especially out on the 65-seat patio, where trellises, wisteria, Japanese maples and a wall of ivy cool the summer nights and heat lamps await for chillier weather.

If you sit in the sleek 46-seat dining room at peak times, good luck talking. Even outside the noise level can get high, what with lots of children, large celebratory parties and a full liquor license featuring inventive Italian-inspired cocktails.

If you are most interested in romance, conversation and wonderful service, mid-afternoon is the ticket. It offers the same menu from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

Pizzeria Delfina comes to us from Annie and Craig Stoll, who founded the restaurant Delfina 15 years ago in the newly hip Mission District of San Francisco. They added two Neapolitan-style pizzerias in San Francisco and one in downtown Burlingame before reaching out to Palo Alto. Refreshingly, they treat Palo Alto like a special friend rather than a suburban dolt. It is the only member of the Delfina Restaurant Group with a full bar and the only one with a spacious patio.

Everybody gets thin, perfect bread sticks and a little plate with grated Parmesan, red chile flakes and dried oregano to chew on while perusing the menu. Feel free to ask about all those pesky Italian words.

Delfina's Neapolitan 10-inch pizza crusts have swirly ridges on the bottom, like the Indian flatbread, naan, and puffy edges. The crusts aren't too thick or too thin.

As for toppings, the classic margherita ($13) sings with a simple tomato sauce. For me, it could use a few more leaves of basil. Know that you need to eat it right away, or the slabs of mozzarella gum up. Same with the 4 formaggi ($14.50).

Eight regular pizzas range from the Napoletana ($11.75) to the prosciutto pie ($17). There are two daily specials, great choices for vegetarians, and a variety of add-ons from anchovies ($3) to prosciutto ($6).

Pizzas are good, but Delfina's uniqueness comes with its creative use of market vegetables and its salads, thoughtfully composed but not fussy. Try the tuna conserva salad ($10), with fat and creamy butter beans, crisp watercress and meaty house-cured tuna.

In the same vein, the Monterey Bay calamari and ceci salad ($10) is dominated by garbanzo beans (ceci), but the squid's flat body and squiggly tentacles are tender, served on arugula with amazingly good half-inch cubes of just softened zucchini.

"Today's market vegetables" could be tempura-fried fava or green beans ($7) to demolish immediately with well-balanced aioli.

A handful of non-pizza entrees include the beloved chicken alla diavola ($16.75) and meatballs in sugo ($14.75). One day they featured a foot-long curl of narrow fennel sausage, mild but flavorful with sweet-and-sour onions and olive oil, baked in a gratin dish. One oily crostino didn't add value.

Attention to detail is evident in other areas. An order of iced tea ($3) gets you a carafe with a disc of lemon, a glass with a lemon slice and fresh Ceylon black tea. Food-friendly wines by the glass start at $8. On a busy evening, pacing was problematic. Green beans came before wine, and were followed too closely by salad and pizza. The hot dishes are better hot.

The gelato-based dessert menu features six flavors "made right here," which means they do run out. We wanted brown butter and mint stracciatella, but cleansed our palates with chocolate and vanilla (two scoops, $5).

The front room is long and narrow, lined by blond wood tables and a full-length, sky-blue banquette on the window side with cooks and a dining counter on the other side. Exposed beams give the room a more open feel, bright where the previous restaurant in this location, the Empire Tap Room, was dark.

Toward the end of the Tap Room's 21-year-run, the patio was its main draw. Culinary archaeologists will remember that the "secret garden" also was the best thing about Le Meursault, a crepe-focused restaurant. Lesson to Palo Alto: Treasure your restaurant patios.

Pizzeria Delfina

651 Emerson St., Palo Alto



Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

Reservations: No, except for groups of 10 or more with fixed menu

Credit cards: yes

Parking: street and city lots

Alcohol: full bar

Children: yes

Outdoor dining: yes

Party and banquet facilities: no

Noise level: high

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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