Restaurant row is now more ubiquitous to the Bay Area than auto row, and few are more prominent than Castro Street in Mountain View. I've tried counting the food establishments, but I run out of fingers and toes within blocks. Let's agree that there are a lot of eateries to choose from, ethnic and otherwise.
So how does a Castro Street restaurant distinguish itself? Is it price, portions, quality, service or ambiance? The answer is all of the above, to varying degrees, plus the ongoing passion of the owners and their ability to deliver something more than just what's on the plate. Vaso Azzurro is one such place.
The five Sardi siblings took over the restaurant in 2005. All of them are San Jose State University graduates, but in different fields, from business to sports and science. Yet each loved the hospitality business and owning a restaurant made sense, Michael Sardi explained.
"We love special events, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. We sing. Everyone from the kitchen staff to the waitstaff will serenade the guest of honor, make them feel very special, have an unforgettable night. We're pretty good singers too." The restaurant also has live jazz every Friday and Saturday evening from 6:30-10 p.m. It's these kinds of thoughtful details that separate Vaso Azzurro from other dining options.
The spacious interior is warm and inviting, with linen-lined tables, comfortable seating, ochre-colored walls and contemporary art. There are also al fresco street-side tables.
Vaso Azzurro's food is northern Italian with borrowings from other regions. Edgar Duran is the chef de cuisine. There is no better way to start lunch or dinner than with the complimentary house-made focaccia, with its slightly crunchy crust, served with a dipping sauce of olive oil, garlic and balsamic.
Then it's on to more serious business like the aubergine alla Modenese ($8.95): a ratatouille-like stew with chunks of marinated eggplant, tomatoes, red bell peppers, garlic, onion and olive oil. Add more focaccia and it would make a delicious meal.
The tempting calamari fritti ($11.95) was lightly breaded and sprinkled with parmesan and garlic. The generous portion was plenty for two or an entree for one. The tartar sauce was tasty, but the marinara sauce lacked the bite and creaminess of a cocktail sauce.
The gnocchi al pesto ($17.95) was appetizing, even though the potato dumplings are not house-made. Kitchen size, according to Sardi, prohibits staff from making pastas in-house. I liked the addition of Kalamata olives to the pesto cream sauce, which contained more spinach than basil.
I loved the carne lasagna ($16.95) made with ground beef, spinach, mushrooms and onions, then baked with béchamel sauce, ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses and topped with tomato cream sauce. A side of sautéed vegetables accompanied. With apologies to vegetarians and vegans -- it was simply lip-smacking.
The gamberoni alla Ligure ($21.95) were prawns sautéed in a buttery white wine cream sauce with garlic, tomatoes, basil and scallions. It was served with crispy polenta filled with Dungeness crab meat. The polenta added texture and richness.
I wish I could have loved the risotto pescatore ($21.95). The kitchen and waitstaff got their signals crossed and our pasta course arrived only seconds before the entrees. While one waiter tried to shove all the plates onto our small table, another suggested taking the entrees back to the kitchen. Good idea.
However, when we were ready for the entrees, the plate was hot but the risotto was dehydrated. What should have been rich and creamy was grainy, the scallops and shrimp dry and the peas shriveled. The overall dish tasted too strongly of saffron.
At that same dinner, I sent back the red wine because it was too warm. Red wine should be served at 60 to 65 degrees, not at room temperature, especially on warm summer days. Red wine's bitter components are emphasized when warm. A few minutes later the wine returned with chilled glasses which cooled the wine to a drinkable state.
Vaso Azzurro has a full bar, and the wine list is split about 50-50 between California and Italy. Prices were reasonable and the wines paired nicely with the cuisine.
The apple strudel dessert ($8.95) was a collision of too many good things. House-made phyllo dough was nicely stuffed with diced apples. Yet too much caramel sauce erased much of the apple flavor and the large portion of vanilla ice cream turned a good dessert into a high-calorie encounter.
Zabaglione ($9.95) was made with a deft touch, the dreamy whipped cream, Marsala and creamy custard topped with strawberries and crumbled biscotti. It made for an enjoyable conclusion.
The Sardi family clearly works hard to keep Vaso Azzurro filled with regulars. The kitchen knows what it's doing, portions are large, prices reasonable and service attentive. Add to that the pleasing ambiance, full bar, balanced wine list -- and even a staff that sings to you.
108 Castro St., Mountain View
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.