Azzarello has a lengthy resume in the restaurant business. His family owned a small hotel and restaurant in Sicily and he grew up playing in the kitchen, assimilating the sights and smells of rustic authenticity.
While Sicily coursed through his veins, wanderlust captured his heart. He cooked in Tuscany, the Canary Islands and Barcelona before cashing in on invitations from Bay Area relatives. He worked in restaurants in Burlingame and San Francisco, and even at Coppola's winery in Napa, learning the business inside out.
His mother, Carmella, has joined him in the kitchen in Palo Alto. While the menu is Renzo's, Carmella makes many of the breads, sauces and pasta. This is one Italian restaurant that has mamma cooking in the kitchen, and most of the dishes deliver homespun, rich, earthy flavors.
On recent visits I found that while the food was mostly consistent, the ambiance of the cafe varied. Earlier in the week of our visits, the wait staff, while professional, didn't inject much personality into the environment. By midweek, a couple of Sicilian waiters added a charming zest to the proceedings, singing the praises of Mamma Carmella in the kitchen.
For starters, the mouthwatering bruschetta ($6) — of fresh tomato, basil, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil layered on grilled crunchy bread — had strong herbal flavors. That bruschetta had some oomph. Summer is prime time for basil and the kitchen perfectly captured its essence.
The deep-fried potato croquettes ($9) were served with a warm marinara dipping sauce. The croquettes were crusty and cooked through while retaining a velvety moistness. The marinara sauce didn't add much and I thought a cream sauce, while not as authentic, might still have been a better choice to showcase the golden nuggets.
I enjoyed the caponata ($7) of stewed eggplant, black olives, capers, onions, celery and tomatoes in a balsamic reduction. Served cold, it was the perfect summer appetizer. Caponata is the Sicilian version of the French ratatouille, the Catalan samfaina, and many other Mediterranean cuisines that marry eggplant and tomato.
Totani ripieni ($7) was stewed Mediterranean calamari stuffed with bread, parsley and garlic; it was simply delicious. Typically, in this country we cook white calamari. The Adriatic Sea yields a larger red squid that is ideal for stuffing. Firm-fleshed, it is low in fat and high in vitamin B with the same delicate flavors.
As for pasta, I loved the tagliolini mare monte ($16), homemade noodles studded with fresh wild mushrooms and layered with savory black tiger prawns. The pasta absorbed much of the sweetness from the crustaceans, making every bite a revelation.
Also successful was the rigatoni alla puttanesca ($12) with garlic, capers, olives and anchovies in an ever so slightly piquant tomato sauce. It's hard for a restaurant to mess this dish up, but the sauce distinguished Cafe Renzo's version over others.
I didn't love the pizzas, though. As we all know, to each his own on that topic. Suffice it to say, the crust was neither crisp nor doughy. Rather, it was pillowy.
The calzone mezzaluna ($18) was slathered with ricotta, Italian ham and mushrooms topped with a light marinara sauce. There was little flavor; too much ricotta overwhelmed; the button mushrooms had zero taste; and the imported ham was as undistinguished as Oscar Mayer luncheon meat. There was too little marinara sauce for it to have an impact.
The pizza margherita (a more reasonable $10) was made with tomatoes, shreds of fresh basil and mozzarella, and drizzled with olive oil. Again, not much flavor save for the basil; the tomatoes were sparse.
While main courses were all good, the cioppino ($18) was great. Loaded with clams, mussels, calamari, prawns and fresh fish, the spicy stew was gently sauteed in a tantalizing tomato garlic broth. I have been perfecting my own cioppino recipe for many years and this one comes close. It's a terrific dish.
I also doted on the coniglio in agrodolce ($19), rabbit with caramelized onions, carrots and celery with a splash of vinaigrette, served with roasted potatoes. The rabbit was plump and juicy, tender and sweetly mild. Too bad the potatoes had been re-warmed once too often. Several pieces tasted burned and all were desert-dry.
Also worth trying is the veal osso buco served with perfect saffron risotto ($18). And the portafoglio di maiale, or breaded pork medallion ($17), which was filled with mozzarella and Italian ham, splashed with marinara sauce.
The wine list represents both Italy and California well. Prices are fair, with glasses ranging from $7 to $10, and from $22 to $120 per bottle, with many wines in the $20 to $50 range. Most of the Italian red wines, though, are from Tuscany and Piemonte. While there are several reds from Sicily and Puglia and a smattering from Marche and Umbria, I had hoped for better representation.
There are some excellent wines from Calabria, Abruzzo and Campania that match the style of cooking at Renzo. Why not keep it all in the south of Italy? In addition, the wine list, especially the Italian selections, need descriptions as many of the wait staff couldn't answer questions.
Desserts are worth saving room for, especially the cannoli ($6) filled with creamy ricotta. The feathery crisp shell is house-made with lard — which is lighter than butter — and sugar, eggs, vanilla, chocolate and Marsala. Simply divine.
The sinfully good baba al rum yeast cake ($7), saturated in rum, was filled with whipped cream. The Italian coffee-flavored panna cotta al caffe ($6) was heavier and more pudding-like than I had hoped, but it tasted good.
Overall, Cafe Renzo has more going for it than its many predecessors: an experienced on-site chef/restaurateur, stylish decor, a lively bar scene, a good wine list and a genuine Italian mamma in the kitchen.
473 University Ave.
Hours: Open daily. Breakfast: 9-10:30 a.m. Brunch: 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Dinner 4 p.m.-midnight.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: open to street
Party facilities: yes
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent
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