Rocco Scordella is one of those high-energy guys who probably doesn't need much sleep. He is in perpetual motion with new ideas running through his noodle faster than a pasta machine can extrude spaghetti. Raised in Italy's Tuscany region, he enrolled in culinary school in Bologna at age 13. After earning a degree, he expanded his repertoire to other regions of Italy, then England, Paris and New York City's acclaimed Del Posto restaurant — and eventually to the Stanford Barn in Palo Alto, where he and his wife, Shannon, opened Tootsie's in 2009.
Now, he's assembled a first-rate team for his newest restaurant at the barn, Vina Enoteca, which opened last October in the former space of California Cafe next to Tootsie's.
Executive Chef Eduardo Valle Lobo, born in Madrid, has an impressive résumé including stints in London, New York and at Italy's Orsone — the first restaurant acclaimed restaurateurs Joe and Lidia Bastianich (who also own Del Posto) opened in Europe. Add to that, accomplished chef de cuisine Kelly Jeun, pastry chef Lauren Jellenberg and master mixologist Massimo Stronati.
It's a formidable team, and the results show everywhere at this Italian restaurant — on the plate, in the ambiance, in the fine nuances that separate intelligent chef-driven restaurants from those who merely have cooks staffing their kitchens.
Scordella didn't just tweak the décor of the old California Café space; he stripped it. Gone are the cozy booths, the soft wood elements, the linen-lined tables and the fireplace. Scordella had a different sensibility: Vina Enoteca is restrained, more rustic and streamlined, more focused on what's on the plate.
That's not to say it is inelegant. Quite the contrary — the dinnerware is handmade earthenware, the shapes matching the courses, dinner forks are Kate Spade because Scordella likes the way they sit on the table. French-made serrated Laguiole knives are used with certain dishes.
While tabletops are bare, chairs are padded for comfort. The walls are painted forest green and an oversized banquette divides the space. Scordella said it gives him added flexibility for private parties, which can also be accommodated in a separate room that seats 30.
It's summer, and the 200-seat restaurant is outward-oriented with its spacious patio and inviting umbrellas. Not quite under a Tuscan sun, but the atmosphere is as enticing and the warm evenings as seductive.
For starters, I liked the bruschette estate ($12) — grilled homemade bread with just a hint of garlic, fat ripe tomatoes, fresh-sliced plums and micro-greens. The plums and tomatoes were an unusual pairing that worked deliciously. Vina Enoteca makes all its own breads and pastries with two bakers clocking in at 4 a.m. daily.
The delightful grilled baby octopus ($21), was served over Tuscan chickpeas topped with a guanciale (pork cheek) vinaigrette and chopped Italian parsley. The generous portion of cephalopod was tender and the mashed chickpeas did not overwhelm.
I was apprehensive about shaved raw baby artichokes ($16) but they were tender and delectable with curls of 24-month aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, arugula, black pepper, and green olive oil. The artichokes, as many of the vegetables, came from the Deer Hollow educational farm in Mountain View.
The Amatriciana pizza ($18) with San Marzano tomatoes, guanciale, red onion, pecorino cheese, and black pepper had just the right amount of char to the crust. It was slightly blistered yet pliant enough to hold the topping without getting soggy. The onions sweetened the deal and paired well with the slightly salty pork in the guanciale.
Anelli ($23) was small rings of pasta, tossed with asparagus, English peas, snow peas, sun-dried tomato, pea tendrils, mint, and fava beans. The dish exuded freshness with vivid colors and enough crunch to satisfy. Beautifully plated too on a rough-edged dolphin-blue plate.
The seared cauliflower plank ($23) was dotted with Castelvetrano olives (those big green ones), Marcona almonds, and caper relish. It didn't sound like a filling dish but it was. There were edible flowers and leaves, microgreens and flowerets. The caper relish was sharp enough to make itself known but not dominate more subtler flavors.
The thick seared halibut ($36) was served with smoked fregola (a BB-shaped pasta) and sautéed baby spinach. The caper and sun-dried tomato butter sauce cast an elegant mosaic over the succulent fish.
The desserts were topnotch. The heavenly deconstructed cheesecake ($12) was made from creamy goat's cheese with caramelized white wine-poached pears, brown butter oat crumble, and lemon curd.
Strati ($12) was a luscious blood orange mousse and olive oil cake with hazelnut butter, olive oil jam, and wedges of grapefruit.
The panna cotta ($10) was ambrosial with orange peel, chocolate cream, espresso, and candied orange. The panna cotta was feather-light and melted on the tongue. The presentation was a delight. The chocolate cream formed an open cocoa bean; inside it were chocolate espresso nibs. The orange peel replicated stems the cocoa pod might have hung from.
For libations, sophisticated house cocktails and local beer. The thoughtful wine list was fairly priced and mostly Italian.
"Sprezzatura" is an Italian term roughly meaning making the difficult look easy. That's my impression of Vina Enoteca — simply Italian and simply delicious.
700 Welch Road, Palo Alto / 650-646-3477 / vinaenoteca.com
Lunch: 11 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: 5 -9 p.m
Sunday brunch: 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor dining: Yes
Parking: Adjacent lots
Alcohol: Full bar
Happy hour: 4-6 p.m., M-F
Noise level: Moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent