A&E

Italian, the way it should be

True European flavors, feel at Donato Enoteca in Redwood City

When Donato Scotti opened La Strada in Palo Alto in 2004, he breathed new life into the dining scene on University Avenue. His appetizers were dazzling, pasta dishes luscious, fish perfectly cooked and desserts worth the calories.

Donato Enoteca in Redwood City was the next logical step for Scotti. Opened in 2009, there was more space for him to flex his culinary muscles -- more homemade pastas, pizzas from a wood-burning oven, an open kitchen, three private dining rooms besides the mainstay enoteca (wine bar), patio dining and an expanded wine cellar.

Scotti, a native of Bergamo in northern Italy, was raised in a food-conscious family. He followed his natural instincts to culinary school in Italy, then cooked his way to New York, Los Angeles and finally the Bay Area, where he served as head chef at Il Fornaio in Walnut Creek, then Palo Alto. In 2004, he and a business partner opened La Strada.

Donato Enoteca has a European flavor, both food-wise and decor-wise. The enoteca and patio offer casual gathering spaces for relaxed conversation in a no-hurry atmosphere, while the private dining rooms range from unfussy to elegant (and can accommodate groups as large as 70).

The menu has a rustic feel to it, and the portions are large and artfully plated. Service is discreet but attentive. Donato Enoteca is an enjoyable place to meet, eat, drink and relax. Despite the pleasure, I had a couple of issues, mostly with the way some dishes were seasoned.

To whet the appetite, five crispy whole baby artichokes ($11) were served on an elongated plate. It was a diverting presentation and the artichokes provided the perfect crunch with a sauce of mint, garlic and parsley.

The duck egg with fresh local asparagus ($8) made a delightful small appetizer or side dish. The egg was over easy rather than poached, with just enough delicious, runny yolk.

The warm Mediterranean octopus ($11) salad was an enticing composition of potatoes, Taggiasca (Liguria) olives, organic celery hearts, capers and arugula drizzled with a light lemon citronette dressing. Sadly, the salad was way too salty. I deconstructed it to see if the olives or capers were the culprits, but they were tame compared to the other over-salted elements. It took half a lemon squeezed over to make it palatable.

Of the five pizzas offered, I ordered the organic artichokes, tomato and fresh mozzarella with homemade "spicy sausage" pizza ($16). It looked divine: The crust was pliant with a slight char and plenty of ingredients. It had very little flavor, though. I segregated some of the sausage, which didn't have an inkling of spice. The kitchen, I was told, used the wrong sausage.

The pastas, however, were first-rate. The agnolotti del plin ($18) featured small homemade ravioli. Agnolotti is a typical Piemonte filled pasta; "del plin" refers to the pinch used to close the folded pasta. The pasta was stuffed with rabbit, veal and pork and the sauce made from tomato, onions, sausage and veal. It was mouthwatering with a savory depth of flavor.

Bigoli ($19) -- a long, thick, extruded pasta -- was sauced with aromatic braised oxtails and Nebbiolo wine over spears of asparagus, then sprinkled with fresh grated cheese. Huge flavors -- Italian, the way it should be.

The white fleshed baked branzino filet ($26) was delicately flavored with a hint of sweetness. Served with locally grown fava bean puree and black rice, flavors permeated every taste bud from lips to throat.

The perfectly grilled veal loin chop ($28) was topped with a mixture of herbs and white wine over organic dandelion greens and grilled polenta. While it looked fantastic and the meat was tender, it lacked seasoning, as if it had been grilled without so much as salt and pepper. While it was good, it could have been great.

Seasoning was an ongoing problem, either missing or overstated in each of my three visits, not on every dish but on enough dishes. Perhaps the line cooks need a refresher because the restaurant has everything else going for it.

For dessert, the warm, velvety chocolate hazelnut cake ($9), served with vanilla bean gelato, was sinfully gooey.

The organic lemon panna cotta ($8) with homemade zesty orange sauce was fine, though too much orange sauce overpowered the thickened cream.

The wine selection is a tour of Italy. Many of the finest labels are represented, including the pricey Angelo Gaja, Giacomo Conterno and Tenuda San Guido. There were many down-to-earth selections as well, delicious and affordable.

Other than the seasoning missteps, there is much to recommend Donato Enoteca -- the food is straightforward but refined, service attentive, the wine list excellent and it's a fun place to be.

Donato Enoteca

1041 Middlefield Road, Redwood City

650-701-1000

donatoenoteca.com

Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Reservations: yes

Credit cards: yes

Parking: street

Alcohol: full bar

Happy hour: 3-6 p.m. daily

Corkage: $15

Children: yes

Takeout: yes

Outdoor dining: patio

Noise level: moderate

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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