The fusion menu at Caffe Machiavello, the year-old restaurant located near Palo Alto's California Avenue district at the corner of Park Avenue and Page Mill Road, takes diners on a flavorful trek throughout the globe, making extended stops in Peru and Italy. But it's the personal journey of co-owner Maria Neal that leaves the deepest mark on the operation.
Four years ago, doctors gave Neal, who was born with a serious kidney condition, little hope of surviving the transplant she needed after injuring her kidneys in a fall. A trusted mentor who had survived cancer urged Neal to battle through her grim prognosis and focus on her dream of opening a restaurant. A mere two months following her procedure last summer, Neal and her husband, Rahsaan Dean, opened Caffe Machiavello (Neal's maiden name) on the ground floor of the Park Plaza Apartments.
Neal's brush with mortality has had a profound impact on the way she and her husband, the parents of four school-aged children, approach the business.
"After coming through the surgery, I feel unstoppable," she said. "I've lost respect for fear."
The upshot of this "nothing to lose" attitude is a concept that takes risks, yet can overreach and stumble. For example, while an original "grab and go" option for Caffe Machiavello has been scuttled, empty deli pans and half-stocked display cases remain. The menu has also been a challenge. The original lineup was overstuffed with one-off international items. Today's more streamlined version focuses on Peruvian and Italian dishes, a nod to Neal's heritage.
With large-paned windows on three sides, Caffe Machiavello's dining room is bright and cheery. Walls are adorned with an eclectic group of Italian paintings. A collection of glass cases and counters (holdovers from the discarded deli format) form a large semicircle in the middle of the room. An open kitchen is set back from this barrier, revealing a peculiar amount of unused, open space.
My culinary exploration began with the Peruvian wings starter ($12.95), which made a fine first impression. The wings were roasted in a delectable housemade rub of paprika, cumin and garlic, and then deep-fried a golden brown. The dish threw off considerable heat -- both thermal and spicy -- and made a tall glass of water a compulsory accompaniment. Fried gnocchi a la Brasa ($10.95) inflicted a similar fiery blast to the tongue courtesy of a scorching aji amarillo sauce. (Though the item has since been removed, Neal informed me that all delisted selections can be ordered from a secret menu.)
The Machiavello bruschetta ($10.95) featured a decadent, creamy garlic sauce prepared in-house and layered over three lightly toasted pieces of bread. The menu contains a cheeky warning about the dish's addictive properties. Perhaps hyperbole, but not by much.
Between the two salads I sampled, I preferred the bountiful chicken Itza salad ($14.95) and its fresh, Mexican-inspired ingredients -- chopped tomato, roasted corn, avocado, tortilla strips and warm, tender pieces of chicken breast -- over the Machiavello salad ($10.95), a rather mundane mix of greens, tomatoes, onions and olives.
Among entree selections, the lomo saltado ($23.95), a flambeed ribeye steak with Peruvian seasoning, is the restaurant's top seller, according to Dean. I savored a small Roman-style pizza Machiavello ($13.95) which featured a delicate, thin crust and top-tier ingredients including tomato sauce made from scratch, fresh mozzarella and prosciutto. Meanwhile, the fettuccini a la huancaina con milanesa ($21.95) drew raves from my dining companion. The spicy cheese sauce from Peru's highlands blended nicely with the bowl's al dente noodles and strips of crispy, breaded chicken.
The superb tacos Peruanos de chicharron ($18.95) were my favorite item on the menu. Thin slivers of sweet potatoes and a salsa criolla made from onions, chilies and cilantro provided color and gave a citrusy complement to the expertly braised, juicy pork filling.
After a round-the-world tasting tour, dessert returned us to home soil: San Francisco's acclaimed Mitchell's ice cream. The generous scoops of rich, creamy coconut ice cream ($8.95) were the perfect coda to our meal.
Service was solid, featuring friendly patter and prompt food delivery. However, the strain of the Valley's labor crisis was clear throughout each of my three visits. During one lunch, the chef worked the entire restaurant unassisted. Failure to solve staffing woes could dim the restaurant's prospects for growth.
Caffe Machiavello is just far enough from California Avenue to miss out on the area's sizzling synergy, so Neal and Dean have devised some creative promotions: live music on Saturday nights, a forthcoming deal to import wine from Mount Etna, and a fun social media campaign that rewards users who post their version of the "chicken dance" -- the dorky wedding reception classic -- with a free quarter chicken meal. (See the website for details and accept that you will look nowhere near as cool as the owners' oldest son, Brian, the featured dancer in the sample clip.)
While she and her husband dutifully pursue marketing strategies, Neal is most content chatting with her regulars. She's often prompted to share her remarkable story of survival with those facing their own health challenges.
"I want the restaurant to do well, of course," she said, "but my biggest goal is to make friends."
Spoken like someone with nothing to lose.
195 Page Mill Road, Suite 117, Palo Alto
Hours: Closed Sundays. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Parking: Street and garage
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Corkage: $15.00 per bottle
Noise level: Moderate