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December 19, 2003

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 19, 2003

Still going strong Still going strong (December 19, 2003)

Spalti offers solid Italian food at fair prices

by Dale F. Bentson

P hilliph Bulutogli makes his living running the popular Spalti Ristorante on California Avenue.

Judging from the restaurant's cuisine, one might be surprised to learn that Bulutogli is a Turkish-born Kurd. But the Palo Alto resident and businessman has cultivated an impressive resume since leaving his native country.

"I was classically trained in European cuisine and technique at a culinary school in Turkey. We primarily learned Italian and French along with some Spanish techniques."

Bulutogli emigrated to the United States in the late 1980s and attended hotel-restaurant management school to hone his hospitality skills. He started working in Italian restaurants as a busboy, dishwasher and waiter. He opened Spalti with a now departed partner in 1991.

"Our business thrives on local regular customers. We try to make them happy. It is like family, we have been together a long time, we are friends." He added, "I try to keep the staff together too. After many years our staff and customers have gotten to know each other as friends."

The decor of Spalti was certainly inviting and gracious: terra cotta walls, linen-covered tables, candles, music, romantic lighting and large abstract lithographs in the style of Picasso, Klee and Miró adorning the walls. Only the incongruous floral carpet slightly detracted from the warm ambience.

Rodolso Jarguim, the former chef at Spiedo's in San Mateo, has run the kitchen at Spalti for five years. He offers a spate of specials every evening, in addition to the ambitious menu.

A basket of house-made focaccia was brought immediately to our table. The classic Italian flatbread is as old as recorded history, the name a derivative of a Latin word meaning "hearth." Before ovens became common, this flat bread was baked on a stone under a mound of hot ashes. Our focaccia was accompanied by a dish of herbed olive oil for dipping.

We started one evening with antipasti. Grigliata al fungi ($8.95) was a grilled Portobello mushroom topped with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, arugula, roasted pine nuts, shaved parmesan cheese and olive oil. The fragrance was as divine as the flavors.

Grigliata di polenta ($6.95) -- a chunk of grilled polenta topped with feta cheese and mushroom sauce -- was a hearty dish with which to begin the evening. The textured sauce was studded with a generous amount of sliced mushrooms. All in all, an interesting combination that worked well.

At another dinner we opened with calamari fritti ($8.95), fried squid on a bed of arugula accompanied by both a red chili and a tartar sauce. My waiter told me I was one of the first to try out this new menu item. The calamari was nicely fried -- not too crisp and not too chewy. The sauces needed a little tweaking, but I am sure all will be worked out by the time readers arrive to try this new dish.

Insalata cesare ($6.95) had a nice smack to it, with crisp romaine lettuce, parmesan cheese, olive oil and house-made croutons. The piquancy came from the combination of anchovy, dried mustard and Worcestershire sauce.

Many restaurants drape the anchovy over the finished salad. When you see this, it means that there is no anchovy in the dressing and the dressing will almost always be bland. Spalti did it the correct way by finely chopping the anchovy in with the other ingredients.

The minestrone was chock full of chunky vegetables afloat in a pleasantly aromatic vegetable broth. New England clam chowder was just fair, but then I didn't expect the clams to be fresh at $4 (Soups are $4 per cup, $5 per bowl.)

Stuffed pasta was house-made. Gnocchi del Cardinale ($9.95) were perfectly plump potato dumplings in a tomato cream rosemary sauce. The little pasta pillows were spongy in the mouth, the way they are supposed to be, not chewy or elastic.

Pappardelle are wide noodles with rippled edges. Pappardelle con Salsiccia ($11.95) came with generous chunks of flavorful Italian sausage, chopped fresh tomatoes, arugula and bell peppers in a fresh-tasting marinara sauce. All portions at Spalti are generous.

One pasta special was ravioli con granchio ($15.95), house-made ravioli stuffed with Dungeness crab (now in season) in a perfectly balanced sauce of cream, capers, fresh diced tomatoes and green onion.

I also liked the petto di pollo al rosmarino ($12.95), three large slices of grilled chicken breast that had been marinated in garlic and rosemary and then drizzled with a balsamic vinegar. Roasted potatoes and sauteed yellow squash accompanied the dish. The chicken was tender and juicy despite being grilled -- a method that can dry white meat if not carefully watched.

Desserts at Spalti are good. Tiramisu ($6.50), made with layers of ladyfingers (sponge cakes), chocolate, mascarpone cheese, espresso and amaretto, was light as a feather.

Torta di fromaggio ($5.95) was a wonderful house-made amaretto cheesecake. It was slightly crumbly to the fork and bursting with sweet, nutty almond flavors. Worth the calories.

In Tuscany, vin santo, or "holy wine," is made from grapes that have been hung up and left to shrivel then crushed during winter months. The longer the grapes hang, the more concentrated the sugars are. The wine is then aged in small barrels for three to 10 years. Not as fiery as grappa -- which is similar to brandy -- but potent enough for a dessert wine (14 to 17 percent alcohol). It is a delicious and bracing way to conclude the evening.

At Spalti, vin santo can be paired with biscotti ($6). While the biscotti were not house-made they were, nevertheless, fresh and tasty.

Spalti maintains a wine cellar of 2,000 to 3,000 bottles at all times. The wine list is about two-thirds Californian and one-third Italian. I liked the Machiavelli Chianti Classico, Riserva at $36 and the Acacia, Carneros, Chardonnay at $38. There are numerous wines available by the glass. Each month Spalti features several wines not found on the wine list that are available by the glass or bottle.

Spalti has thrived because it offers solid food, fair pricing, personable service and an excellent wine cellar. It has also thrived because Bulutogli knows how to accommodate his friends and caters to their wants.
Spalti Ristorante Reservations: yes Credit cards: yes Parking: city lots Alcohol: beer and wine only Children: high chairs and boosters Outdoor dining: front patio all year, back patio, summer only. Party and banquet facilities: yes Take out: yes (Waiters on Wheels) Catering: yes Noise level: moderate Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

Spalti Ristorante, 417 California Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 327-9390; www.spalti.com

Hours: Lunch Monday -- Saturday 11 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner Monday - Saturday 5 - 10 p.m.; Sunday 4:30 - 9 p.m.


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