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April 23, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, April 23, 2004

Under the Tuscan sun -- sort of Under the Tuscan sun -- sort of (April 23, 2004)

Patrons drawn to Osteria's homey setting and house-made pasta

by Dale F. Bentson

"O steria" means "tavern" in Italian, a place where people gather to eat, drink and socialize.

Osteria in Palo Alto is that kind of place. People like it, despite the crowds, noise and nondescript decor. The wine list is so-so and they can run out of some desserts. Yet it's homey and patrons enjoy the cooking. Service is prompt and prices are good. It's a cozy nook that has thrived for years.

"We know how to make food taste good," said Greg Piccinini who co-owns the restaurant with his father, Angelo. "We serve good fare at reasonable prices, using authentic recipes, and (we) have a very knowledgeable professional kitchen staff."

The Piccininis both had extensive restaurant experience when they opened Osteria in 1986.

"Our head chef and sauce chef have been with us since the beginning," Piccinini added. "We do things the old fashioned way -- in the kitchen and taking care of our customers."

The somewhat worn decor is simple, with each table topped with white linens, tiny plastic flowers, chipped salt-and-pepper shakers and a candle. Undemanding contemporary artwork fade into the creamy walls.

But even on Monday evenings, Osteria can be jammed with people waiting in line to eat. With a reservation on each visit, I had no delay in being seated.

A refreshing way to start dinner was with the sweet, fragrant Parma prosciutto and melon ($7). Tasty razor-thin ham was draped over barely ripe melon. Parma is seasoned, salt-cured, air-dried ham with no added chemicals; it is saltier, drier, firmer and redder than other imported hams.

Polenta with wild mushrooms ($6.50) was another way we whetted our appetites. The cake-like polenta provided a sturdy and tasty base for the medley of shiitake and other sliced mushrooms that were covered in a lightly acidic tomato sauce. The mushrooms change daily, according to what is fresh and available.

The minestrone ($4.50) was a rich flavorful bowl, the kind your Mama used to make if she had any Italian inclinations. It was chock full of fresh carrots, mushrooms, zucchini and onions in a stock of bean and chicken. A prosciutto bone was thrown in the stockpot for added flavor.

The generous portion of eggplant ($11.50) was ideal for my vegetarian friend. It had been dredged in flour, sauteed, then stuffed with soft Teleme cheese. Topped with fresh spinach, it had been submerged in marinara sauce (tomato, onion, garlic and oregano) and baked until it was thick and rich.

But we came for the pasta, and most of it is house-made at Osteria. Angelo makes it every day. The labor-intensive pappardelle (the widest of the flat noodles), along with all the stuffed pastas, are made from semolina and mixed, rolled out, flattened, crimped or stamped, then air-dried daily on the premises.

Pappardelle Osteria ($11.50) was a heaping plate of steaming spinach pasta intertwined with shreds of prosciutto and mushrooms, suffused in marinara sauce. The house-made pappardelle is so fragile after it is made that it is carried from drying rack to kitchen on cheesecloth. The result is marvelous. And the gravy was delicate enough to allow the delicious pasta to take center stage.

Spinach raviolini ($11) were delicate wisps of pasta stuffed with ricotta cheese and herbs and sheltered under the ubiquitous marinara sauce. Ravolini are a tinier version of ravioli. Graceful and delicate, the creamy hot cheese oozed when pricked with my fork. The flavors were subtle and engaging.

The origins of pesto are historically linked to Genoa, where a dressing called "battuto d'aglio " (literally battered garlic) was in widespread usage by the late 16th century. At Osteria, fresh basil is ground with garlic, olive oil, Parmesan and a splash of cream to produce linguine al pesto ($10.50).

The dish was a creamier and less pungent version of what one would find in Italy. There, the pesto and garlic are almost hot in the mouth, leaving a memorable taste sensation. Here the cream evens out the pungency of the ingredients. I am not faulting Osteria for delivering what their clientele wants, but I longed for a pesto that bites back.

Spaghetti carbonara ($11.50) didn't have as much flavor as I had hoped either. There were generous amounts of pancetta (Italian bacon) and cream but again there wasn't quite enough garlic to give the dish zing. The sauces at Osteria perfectly coat the pasta and do not overwhelm it. Too many restaurants drench pastas with the sauces, increasing caloric intake and diminishing the authenticity of the dishes.

In Italy, gnocchi has differing shapes, depending upon where it originates. Gnocchi is traditionally linked to Sicilian and southern Italian cuisine. The shape does not affect the taste, though, and Osteria's gnocchi ($10.50) rivals the best from Italy. Delicate pillows of potato dumplings were bathed in a sauce of tomato, mushroom, beef and pork. The gnocchi were spongy -- not gummy, as they often are in some Italian restaurants -- and as light as marshmallow puffs on my fork.

Besides great pasta, Osteria offers a number of other selections, including several evening specials. Of these, I sampled the broiled swordfish ($15.50). The medium-sized filet was flaky with a slightly briny flavor -- a good indicator of freshness. The filet was presented with vibrant green beans and carrots cooked al dente. Everything on the plate read fresh.

Osteria's rendition of veal scaloppini ($14.25) came blanketed under sauteed mushrooms and artichokes. The delicate pink-white meat, which been dredged in flour and sauteed in an herb butter, was lean and tender. The thistly artichokes were a nice addition, balancing out the richness of the veal and butter sauce, while the mushrooms added another layer of texture.

Hurry and order dessert, because by mid-evening some of the sweets can be sold out. On a recent visit, three desserts we ordered were missing in action by 8 p.m. Happily, the kitchen always had an unlisted dessert or two to save the day.

Cioccolata flan ($4.25) consisted of two chilled chocolate mini-pies made with a splash of amaretto and drizzled with apricot-honey sauce. The Gianduja flan ($4.50) was a luxurious hazelnut-custard paste nestled inside Swiss hazelnut-flavored chocolate. The flan was light and eggy, with flecks of ground chocolate and hazelnuts at the bottom.

Two special cakes were not on the menu. One was a traditional tiramisu cake ($5). Italian for "pick me up," it was made from liqueur-soaked ladyfingers, sweet mascarpone cheese, zabaglione, whipped cream and shaved chocolate. The other was a fluffy orange-amaretto cake ($5). Both were divine ways to conclude an evening.

The wine list was unpretentious, with a dozen or so medium-quality Tuscan reds priced from $25 to $58. The California selection was more interesting, with about two-dozen reds and whites to choose from. Prices were reasonable with some half-bottles available. The corkage fee is $10.

Service was always prompt and personable. The rushed wait staff had just enough time for some light banter with patrons -- that worked nicely in this hurried environment. Water and wine glasses were quickly and discretely refilled.

Two sides of the restaurant have large windows framing Hamilton Avenue and Ramona Street. It is the kind of comfortable ambience one might expect to find in smaller Tuscan towns, such as Rada, Greve or Montevarchi. The food is as enjoyable, too.
Osteria: Reservations: yes Credit cards: yes Parking: city lots Alcohol: wine and beer Children: high chairs and boosters Private dining and banquet facilities: no Catering: no Noise level: high Bathroom cleanliness: high

Osteria, 247 Hamilton Ave. in Palo Alto; (650) 328-5700

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

Highlights, House-made pasta, including pappardelle Osteria, spinach raviolini and gnocchi. Desserts are delicious.

Atmosphere: Decor is simple and homey.


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