If Italian comfort food brings to mind that wayward bit of marinara sauce splattering on a checkered tablecloth as you twirl a few strands of spaghetti, you might need an update.
At iTalico, California Avenue's new Italian addition to its growing restaurant repertoire, comfort has an edge. The place has the polish and finesse of an upscale restaurant but still has the feel of a favorite neighborhood joint, the kind of place you'd take the family when you don't feel like cooking on a weekday night. It's friendly and casual but with a decided air of sophistication.
It starts with the big smiles and cheery "buona sera" that greet patrons as they approach the counter, just inside the restaurant's glass-paneled doors. There's the buzz of animated conversations, the aroma of hearty food cooking in a wood-fired oven imported from Italy, the bustle of good-looking waiters plying customers with earthy red wine and sparkling prosecco.
Brothers Franco and Maico Campilongo, owners of the very successful Terún a block away from iTalico, took over the space from the short-lived Fire, Oak & Barley, which closed last April. After making "a few cosmetic touches" to the completely renovated building, iTalico opened with a small but select menu in mid-July.
The Campilongos named their first restaurant Terún, a term that refers disparagingly to someone from southern Italy. The name iTalico comes from an ancient Greek word, "Italói," used to define the natives from Calabria in the southern peninsula of Italy, which is where the brothers grew up.
The place is already popular with foodies who gush over the pecorino with truffles from Sardinia or smile knowingly at the Fra' Mani salame nostrano that's been handcrafted in Berkeley. Unlike some of Palo Alto's more trendy, ingredient-conscious culinary havens, however, the menu is presented in a straightforward, unfussy manner. It's all decidedly Italian in flavors and atmosphere but brought up to date with a modern sensibility that is oh-so-easy to digest.
Meals include wood-fired, oven-baked small plates and entrees, pastas, salads and risotto. There are filling, enticing appetizers like gently sautéed golden chanterelle mushrooms heaped over crusty grilled bread ($13) or broccolo gratinato ($12), baked broccoli and potatoes smothered in cheese sauce and topped with crisp seasoned bread crumbs. There's the fagioli e bietola ($12), silky white cannellini beans mixed with Swiss chard and cheese.
Salads are far simpler, such as tangy, fresh arugula drizzled with vinaigrette and tossed with walnuts, fava beans, green apple slices and shaved Parmesan ($12). Two or three of these generous starters, plus wine and bread, make a plentiful meal on their own.
Diners are encouraged to mix and match a small but select assortment of salumi and cheeses ($9 for one selection, $30 for four), nicely presented on boards and accompanied by tiny tastes of marinated white beans, honey, olives and walnuts. We feasted on a platter of pork sausage coppa sliced paper-thin and deep red beef bresaola with slabs of fantastically creamy Taleggio from Lombardy and Grana Padano from Parma. With a glass of wine and slices of rustic bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, you can come pretty close to reenacting an indolent repast from some charming bistro in Bova overlooking the Ionian coastline.
Main courses include one each of meat, veal, chicken and fish, and a nice variety of classic pastas. Ossobuco ($29) was fall-off-the-bone tender and served over a puddle of creamy polenta. The lasagne verdi ($20), one of the few vegetarian offerings on the meat-heavy menu, featured a large slab of pasta layered with spinach and peas embedded in a dense cheese sauce and topped with some unnecessary béchamel. Rigatoni ($19), also oversized, was sauced with pea pesto and loaded with bits of pancetta.
A few oven-cooked dishes were not heated thoroughly when they arrived at our table, and I found some to be a bit heavy-handed with the cheese and too wimpy on the spices and seasonings. Servings are extremely generous -- another reminder of the big portions typical of neighborhood Italian restaurants -- and toting home your box of leftovers should work off a few of the calories from the indulgent sauces and silky pastas.
It's worth suffering a little more hedonism for dessert, especially the trifle ($10), a cup of sponge cake sprinkled with berries and saturated with creams of every sort, and the stupendous salted caramel gelato drizzled with olive oil ($8).
iTalico serves only draft beer and wine, but much effort has gone into its 20-page wine list. There's an emphasis on Italian reds, of course, with a nice variety of off-the-beaten-track nebbiolos, Brunellos, barberas and sangioveses, as well as a range of dessert wines. Prices are on the high side, with only about five bottles offered under $40. Generous pours of single glasses run $12 to $18.
So what is it about iTalico that stands out? Well, pretty much everything. Service is polished without being snooty. The owners make it a point to stop by every table to chat, learn their customers' names and share their obvious pleasure in food, wine and all things Italian. Their enthusiasm, creativity and charm energize the dining room and complement the flavors that emanate from the busy kitchen.
It's not perfect by any means: The room can get quite loud, and I'm not fond of the distraction of a large-screen TV over the bar in a restaurant that purports to emulate bona-fide Italian dining. But those are quibbles about a vibrant addition to the Palo Alto food scene. iTalico is energetic and stylish, and it excels in regional Italian food, wine and service.
341 California Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.--2:30 p.m. Tuesday--Friday; dinner 5--10 p.m. Tuesday--Saturday and 5--9 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Parking: Street, nearby lots
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Happy Hour: No
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: High
Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent