The Italian neighborhood restaurant we grew up with has become an endangered species. So I was looking forward to dining at Café Vitale, located in the charming Loyola Corners area of Los Altos -- its shopping center neighbors include a bike shop and dance studio.
Delicious sandwiches seem to be Café Vitale's métier, and the place was busiest midday. The grilled Tuscan chicken sandwich ($9.95) and side of fries ($3.50) were first-rate. The sandwich, with jack cheese, caramelized onions and basil mayonnaise, was served on grilled ciabatta bread. It came with a cup of spinach and broccoli soup, which would have been better had it been hotter.
The restaurant's charm began to fade after that. At another lunch, I was served a basket of bread and focaccia that tasted as if it was leftover from the night before.
Then came bruschetta ($6.95), a large portion served with mixed greens. The tomatoes were so unripe they were crunchy. The heavy douse of garlic and balsamic vinegar overwhelmed my taste buds and burned my mouth. The waitress graciously removed the item from the bill.
Next up: pizza. There are endless versions of Margherita pizza. I like it at lunch because it's light -- a little cheese with no meat or vegetables. Classic Italian Margherita is tomato sauce and shredded basil with a few dollops of mozzarella dotting the pie. I've never seen a Margherita pizza ($11.95) like Café Vitale's: a cheese-laden pizza with sliced tomatoes on top. The house-made crust was pliable and doughy. Though the flavor was good, it was heavy for lunch.
At dinner, the Caesar salad was flavorless and the portion was skimpy for the price ($9.95). I couldn't detect any of the essentials of a Caesar dressing: no anchovy or garlic, mustard powder or black pepper, heady olive oil, Worcestershire, coddled egg, kick nor bite. One of Café Vitale's investors, Ruben Comec, said Café Vitale's version contains no egg, mustard powder or anchovy.
The calamari fritti ($13.95) were fried crisp and the flavors were good. The accompanying tomato sauce, though, was too herby and swamped the delicate squid flavors. A squeeze of lemon was the best accompaniment.
The same sauce showed up minutes later atop the house-made gnocchi ($16.95). It was too herbal for that dish too, and cloaked the delicate gnocchi flavors. However, without the sauce, the gnocchi tasted more of flour than potato.
The salmon with creamy risotto ($18.95) offered further disenchantment. If the fish was fresh, you could have fooled me. The three bone-dry filets were so overcooked they were stiff as cardboard. The risotto wasn't the least bit creamy, more al dente.
Desserts, $7.50 each, were marginally better. Pumpkin pudding, not quite seasonal, was dense and moist. The cinnamon whipped cream was a nice touch.
The panna cotta was well conceived, light without being gelatinous, but the melted blackberry preserves poured over the top nearly ruined it.
The tiramisu was another disappointment. The ladyfingers had been soaked in something faintly alcoholic, but I know not what. Otherwise, the only flavor derived was from the cocoa powder sprinkled too liberally over the cake.
Through the food ordeals, the waitstaff was unfailingly pleasant and helpful. Comec explained a new menu will launch soon, and many of the problems I had with the food will, hopefully, be amended. (Specifically, the bruschetta will no longer have any balsamic vinegar.)
Perhaps the new menu will be more compact, allowing cooks to perfect a smaller range of dishes. As it is, there are several different cooks, so consistency looks to be a problem.
It should be said that Café Vitale isn't intended as fancy schmancy dining. I wouldn't qualify it as Italian either -- Mediterranean, perhaps? So many of the basics of Italian cuisine seem to have eluded the kitchen, passion and expression foremost among them. I look forward to the new menu.
987 Fremont Road, Los Altos
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.- 2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m.