As Italian restaurants go, Redwood City's Vino Santo Bistro is a charmer -- not exactly old-school, not exactly trendy. There's no artisan pizza there (no pizza at all, in fact), but rather the tried and true standards of antipasti, salads, pasta, meat and fish. It's a solid Italian menu we've expected and relied on for years.
The restaurant is cozy and family-oriented and the waitstaff will bend over backwards to please. Could the decor use a little freshening? Sure, since the place hasn't changed much in its 12 years. Every dish was inviting and homey, though, just like Sunday dinners at nonna's.
Chef-owner Odon Ocegueda honed his skills as chef at Chantilly Restaurant in Redwood City for 11 years and Menlo Park's Carpaccio for nine years before that. General manager and son Adan Ocegueda is a certified sommelier who has put together a venturesome wine inventory designed for pairing with the cuisine.
A good start was the nicely balanced prosciutto-wrapped pears ($11). Salty and sweet, the dish featured a half dozen pear wedges enveloped in pan-seared prosciutto with arugula and an appetizing gorgonzola balsamic-reduction sauce.
A little heartier was the polenta al forno ($12), a satisfying plate of roasted polenta topped with feta cheese, balsamic, basil and a mushroom reduction. The feta added zing to the fragrant earthiness of the mushrooms and sauce.
Bruschetta al pomodoro ($7) was a classic rendition of toasted bread with a hint of garlic, chunks of tomato, olive oil, garlic, capers, and basil, topped with parmesan curls. The bruschetta stayed true to its central Italian roots and wasn't blown out of proportion as it is at many local restaurants.
Caprese salad ($10) though, was an uninspired presentation of sliced mozzarella, sliced tomato, oregano, Kalamata olives and basil. Add your own oil and Balsamic vinegar. It was bland and disappointing, especially at this time of year. The tomatoes should have been sweet, rich and smelled like summer and the herbs should have popped. Every dish I tried at Vino Santo resonated with seasonal brightness except this one.
The homemade pappardelle ($17) was seriously wonderful. The luscious pasta was infused with smoked paprika, boiled and then tossed with pancetta, prosciutto, mushrooms and basil in a light marinara sauce. The pasta was expertly sauced, generously coating the pasta ribbons without drowning them. I nearly ordered a second portion for dessert.
The sweet potato gnocchi ($18) -- hand-rolled potato dumplings tossed in brown butter with crispy sage and flecks of black truffle -- were neither feathery nor pasty but rather compact and full-flavored. Taste-wise, I couldn't distinguish whether the gnocchi were made from sweet or white potatoes, but they were delicious by any count.
The oven-baked and breaded eggplant, melanzane alla parmigiana ($17), was the freshest-tasting version I've had. Of course, anything straight from the oven with melted mozzarella and parmesan would taste good, but it was the tomato sauce that distinguished it. A tiny bit of sugar neutralized the tomato's natural bitterness and elevated the marinara sauce to lick-the-plate status. Segmented asparagus spears added color contrast to the presentation.
Veal scallopine ($21) was offered three ways: with Marsala sauce, picatta or saltimbocca (topped with prosciutto in a white-wine sauce). I chose picatta. Good choice. The thinly sliced veal had been quickly sauteed and sauced with a demi-glace, wine, butter, lemon and capers. The generously portioned and mouthwatering dish was served with scalloped potatoes and a medley of tender sauteed vegetables.
The calamari Dore ($20) were tantalizing, the lightly battered calamari steaks sauteed in a sauce of white wine, lemon and butter. The calamari was tender, delicate and flavorful. Dore, which we see on menus associated with Dover sole, petrale, and other white fish, simply refers to seasoning with salt and pepper, dusting with flour, dipping in egg and sauteing in butter and/or oil until golden brown.
Desserts were skillfully prepared. The near-weightless tiramisu ($7) had layers of mascarpone cream, liqueur and espresso-drenched lady fingers, topped with shaved chocolate. It was enjoyable but upstaged by the sumptuous amaretto cheesecake ($7) which was dense, rich and creamy -- a dessert of dreams.
Adan Ocegueda's wine list spans the globe with selections from practically every wine-growing region. However, it's more adventurous than lengthy, designed to introduce diners to new varietals, pairings and atypical ways of thinking about food and wine
Vino Santo isn't cutting-edge Italian. It's charm lies in its time-tested approach: honest, straightforward, well-prepared food, thoughtfully presented and reasonably priced.
Vino Santo Bistro
2030 Broadway St., Redwood City
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m; Sunday, 4:30-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: full bar
Happy hour: coming soon
Delivery: outside service
Outdoor dining: patio
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: good