But if you're seeking good-quality, old-fashioned Italian fare at reasonable prices, Osteria in downtown Palo Alto is the place for you. Decor-wise, the restaurant reminds me of dozens of places found in North Beach three or four decades ago. It's stylishly nondescript in a comforting sort of way.
Large but unimposing Expressionist art decorates the walls; tables have linens but there are no candles; and tiny vases hold plastic flowers. The background music is eclectic: Elvis during one visit, New Orleans jazz on another.
The food is reassuring. All the old standards play well here: lots of generously portioned pasta dishes, tender veal offerings, fresh fish, daily specials, creamy desserts and a wine list that pleases the wallet.
"We have two chefs in the kitchen. Both have been with us since the beginning, nearly 24 years," said Greg Piccinini, who co-owns the restaurant with his father, Angelo. "In addition, my father still makes some of the sauces and pasta. In the kitchen, we still do things the old fashioned way. ... One of our waiters has been with us since the beginning as well."
In Italy, an osteria is more cafe-like with good regional food: a place for neighbors to gather, drink wine, gossip and make merry. Our Osteria is more restaurant than cafe. The food is worthy and the ambiance friendly.
Service was excellent during my visits: quick, accurate and professional. The waitstaff looked as if they had been at it a while, almost anticipating what I was going to order from my attire and demeanor.
For starters, the shrimp and artichoke bottom ($8) came with hearts of palm blanketed under a very garlicky dressing. Tangy and tasty but not a dressing to mop up with a hunk of Italian bread if you are on a first date.
The polenta and wild mushrooms ($9) arrived steamy hot. It was a hearty plate: again, heavily sauced, this time with a vibrant, thick marinara that was the sauce used in many of Osteria's dishes. I liked the marinara but there was a tendency for the kitchen to bury plates with sauce obscuring some of the more delicately flavored dishes.
One evening, we split the vegetarian eggplant entree ($13) as a first course. Two huge servings of spinach, thick slices of meaty eggplant and gooey Teleme cheese were layered under the marinara sauce. It was a tasty dish, one of my favorites at Osteria.
The best of the pastas was the pappardelle ($13.25). The wide noodles were entwined with threads of spinach, chunks of prosciutto and sliced mushrooms. The marinara sauce didn't engulf this dish; there was a nice balance of all the ingredients. It was peppery and perfumed and the inviting aromas were worth savoring before digging in.
I question the pesto linguine ($12.75), which was made with cream and fresh pesto. While it tasted OK, I am not sure why the cream. It dumbed down the exquisite pungency of those lovely classic ingredients of fresh basil leaves, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and pecorino cheese.
Of course, there are as many versions of pesto as there are Italian cooks. This smooth version looked to be made in a food processor as opposed to being ground in a mortar, which leaves a coarser texture. I prefer the latter but am not critical of the processor way. What I didn't like was the lack of intensity, the biting flavor and the aroma that excites the olfactory senses from across the table.
Ditto the spaghetti carbonara ($13.25), which was made with eggs, cream, parmesan cheese and pancetta. The pancetta — Italian pork belly bacon — is almost sweet when cooked, with a distinct flavor. The diced pancetta in that carbonara had no flavor at all and it struck me more as meat from a canned ham than that lovely flavor-packed bacon I had looked forward to.
The special one evening was salmon-filled ravioli ($15). The house-made pasta was plump and fresh, doughy and egg-y. The cream sauce was delicate enough not to overwhelm the seafood but this salmon filling was potent, too fishy to have been fresh. Nonetheless, the flavors were good and portion more than filling.
Veal piccata ($18.50) was milky tender, subtle and irresistible. The lemon and capers were in harmony with the meat, creating an excellent interpretation of a classic dish. The same carrots and green beans accompanied.
Petrale sole ($18.50) was a lovely piece of fish that was buried under the marinara sauce. I scraped the sauce off, otherwise the gentle flavor of the petrale would have been lost. The dish came with beautifully prepared buttered green beans and garlicky carrots.
Desserts were respectable. The tiramisu ($6) was a cloudlike creamy affair that was more fluff than flavor. The mascarpone and whipped cream obliterated much more than a hint of the espresso liqueur, ladyfingers and chocolate.
The special dessert one evening was a delicious lemon tart ($6), just sweet enough and tangy. The custard was lush and nicely congealed, the crust buttery and flaky.
Osteria's wine list is brief but well tuned to the cuisine with both reasonably priced California and Italian wines. There are several worthwhile imports in the $30-$40 range: a smooth Amarone at $45, a fruity Montepulciano at $33, and a robust young-vines Brunello also for $33. A dozen wines are available by the glass. Corkage fee is $17.
Osteria is almost a throwback to the contemporary notion of slick ambiance, pricy and complex Italian fare. But what goes around comes around, and in this economy, where value-driven comfort food is king, Osteria is right on top of things.
247 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto
Lunch: Weekdays 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Outdoor dining: no
Party facilities: no
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent