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Publication Date: Friday, May 23, 2003

Sweet 16 Sweet 16 (May 23, 2003)

Good food and romantic ambience at Carpaccio

by Dale F. Bentson

Restaurants that survive over the long haul cater to the tastes of their clientele. Likewise, the clientele know exactly what kind of food and dining experience to expect when they frequent the restaurant. That symbiosis is present at Carpaccio, a restaurant that has thrived for nearly 16 years in Menlo Park.

What is extraordinary about Carpaccio is that the staff seemingly stays on forever. Owned by restaurant visionary Aaron Ferer, the dining room has been ably managed by Ciya Martorana and Robert Colombo since opening in 1988. Ditto for Chef Jose Lopez, who has been working in the kitchen throughout the restaurant's entire lifespan.

"To us, commitment is everything," said Martorana, a former Broadway singer-actress-dancer. "At this point, I don't think anyone has worked here less than eight or nine years."

The interior of Carpaccio is sleek, yet cozy. Vibrant copies of Leonetto Cappiello's whimsical, early 20th century poster art adorns the walls. Muted pastels and contemporary lighting lend an air of romance to this 100-seat restaurant, where dining is separated into three areas. The front has sliding glass windows that open to the street, weather permitting. The central area has the bar and a view of the wood-burning oven, while the back of the restaurant allows more intimate dining. Oversized wine goblets and crisp, white table linens hold the promise of a great dining

The menu is decidedly Italian, with allowances for local ingredients. Upon seating, we were presented with a half loaf of fresh Italian bread and olive oil for dipping while we perused our menus. A weekly special menu supplements the regular bill of fare. The Carpaccio ($8.25), was the perfect antipasti, well prepared with razor-thin slices of raw beef under a sprinkling of diced onions, capers, lemon and a drizzle of mustard. An excellent beginning.

Calamari Fritti Alla Caesar ($10) offered lightly battered, crispy fried calamari and fried lemon with a creamy Caesar dipping sauce. The squid was light and delicious, rivaling the best I have had anywhere. There was plenty for two with the platter-sized serving. Funghi al Forno ($9.95) consisted of three jumbo Portobello mushrooms topped with olive oil, herbs and garlic roasted in the wood-burning oven. If you are a Portobello fan you will love this dish. I was disappointed, however, by the Fondo di Carciofo con Gamberetti ($7.75), an artichoke bottom that was not fresh, topped with tasteless shrimp under a green herb sauce that was nothing more than a standard white sauce blended with some fresh herbs. The entire dish lacked any distinctive flavor. Insalada di Caesar ($6.50) was just OK -- absent any bite to the dressing. Panzanella Della Giardiniera ($8.25) presented a platter of raw, chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, bell peppers, carrots and bread chunks. The vegetables begged for a strong unifying flavor; even a pungent olive oil with a splash of Balsamic vinegar would have improved this plate.

One evening I had the special Costata di Maiale Arrostita ($15.95), a thick-cut Porterhouse pork chop with a caramelized onion mustard sauce served with scrumptious corn fritters and fresh spinach. Hearty and satisfying for larger appetites. The special Sogliola ($18.95) was a decidedly overcooked halibut steak served with limp olives, capers, lemon, tomatoes, potatoes and herbs baked in parchment. The fish was way too dry and evoked little flavor. The dish was accompanied with unremarkable saut»ed zucchini and carrot slices.

In addition to seafood and meat entrees, Carpaccio offers a variety of pastas and pizzas. Of the 11 pasta dishes, only the Pappardelle al Pepe Nero ($14.95) was house-made with black pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, shallots, mushrooms and Chianti. This was the best pasta dish. If all the pastas were house-made, more of the dishes would shine. Linguine Alle Vongole ($13.95) comes either red with tomatoes, clams and garlic, or white with cream, clams and garlic. We had the former and, while the Vongole sauce was serviceable, it had little flavor and came with only three accompanying in-the-shell clams.

Spaghettini con Popplpette Della Nonna ($11.50), described as "grandmother's spaghetti and meatballs in marinara sauce," was an enormous portion with four large tasty meatballs -- plenty for at least two people. The spaghetti, however, was the same uninteresting commercial pasta, and I would have liked a little more sauce, because the mass of pasta absorbed all the marinara before I could even make a dent in the serving.

I loved the Pizza Salsiccia ($10.75), a thin crust topped with a delicious blend of fennel sausage, tomatoes, garlic, mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Other pizza offerings include a smoked salmon and caviar pizza ($16.25) and a spinach, goat cheese, mozzarella, garlic and prosciutto topping ($11).

Carpaccio offers more than a dozen tempting desserts prepared by pastry chef Rebecca Cameron. Crispy cannoli ($6.50) were filled with ricotta cream, flakes of bittersweet chocolate dipped in toasted pistachios -- outstanding with an espresso, latte or even a drop of cognac. The restaurant has an excellent after-dinner libation menu that includes a few grappas for those wanting to put an exclamation point on the evening. Merenga di Mare ($6.95), baked meringue filled with caramel gelato and topped with blackberries and whipped cream, was nicely prepared and came with an abundance of fresh fruit.

My favorite dessert was the Budino di Pane Caldo ($6.75), a warm bread pudding, lightly crusted on top and served in a brandy sauce with vanilla bean gelato. This dessert alone is worth the trip. Also noteworthy was Crostata di Crema Banane ($6.95), a white chocolate-banana cream tart with Macadamia nut crust -- exactly like one Mom would make.

I normally love Zabaione Crema ($6.95), a simple dessert made with eggs, sugar and Marsala. Ideally, it is whipped to a light froth and swells into a soft mass. Here it was more of a pudding studded with fruit. If there was Marsala in it, it had been reduced to a wisp.

Carpaccio has a pleasing selection of reasonably priced wines, including an array available by the glass. The staff seeks out specials from wineries and distributors and passes the savings along to patrons, according to Martorana. The wine menu represents producers primarily from the West Coast and Italy, with an interesting selection of Chianti Classicos, Brunellos and Super Tuscans. For those special occasions, Carpaccio also cellars those California trophy wines: Opus One, Neibaum-Coppla, Quintessa and others.

The bar area is lively but unobtrusive to diners. The wait staff is pleasant and professional -- though a tad impersonal -- and the kitchen is prompt. Carpaccio is a charming and cozy restaurant, where even on Monday evenings you can find the place full. Sweet 16, indeed.

Carpaccio Restaurant, 1120 Crane St., Menlo Park; (650) 322-1211; www.carpaccios.com

Hours: Lunch: Mon. - Fri. 11:30 a.m. -- 2 p.m.; a light lunch of salads, pizza and appetizers is served 2 to 5 p.m. Dinner: Mon. - Thurs. 5 -- 10 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. 5 -- 10:30 p.m.; Sun. 5 -- 9 p.m.

Atmosphere: Sleek yet cozy Italian restaurant nestled on a quiet side street. Muted pastels and contemporary lighting lend an air of romance.

Highlights: Weekly specials, calamari, carpaccio, pizza, house-made pasta excel. Full bar.

Price Range: Antipasti, salads, pizza, pasta: $6.25 -- $14.95; major entrees: $12.50 -- $18.25; desserts: -- $5.95 -- $6.75; fairly priced wine list.
Reservations: yes Credit cards: yes Full bar: yes Take out: yes High chairs: yes Private area and banquet facilities: yes Outdoor dining: no Noise level: moderate Bathroom cleanliness: high Parking: city lot across the street


 

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