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September 09, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, September 09, 2005

Truly a treat Truly a treat (September 09, 2005)

Regional recipes of Italy are chic and authentic at Vero

by Dale F. Bentson

Vero, the new trattoria on Bryant Street in downtown Palo Alto, isn't your typical spaghetti-and-meatballs Italian restaurant. Occupying the space of the famed L'Amie Donia and the more recent ill-fated La Cheminee, Vero has a menu and ambiance that are simple, upbeat and interesting.

The interior has been brightened with lighter shades of yellow. Contemporary tables, chairs and booths match the tone of the newly installed wood wainscoting. Linen tablecloths and napkins, flowers and candles give the space a warm chicness that its predecessors lacked. Service is friendly, knowledgeable and attentive.

The principals in the business, Andrea Merafina, Massimo Chicca, Antonio Cremona and chef Kristian D'Angelo are all from southern regions of Italy, but, oddly, only met in California. Merafina has many years of restaurant experience in Rome and Tuscany, while D'Angelo cooked for nearly a decade in Turin and other cities.

Their idea was simple (it always seems simple when it works): construct a trattoria with straightforward, inexpensive fare using authentic regional Italian recipes. According to Merafina, most of the recipes are traditional, time tested and true; hence, Vero, which means "true."

Italy did not become a country until the 1860s. Before that it was a mosaic of city-states and kingdoms alternately falling under the influence of the French or the Austrians in the 18th and 19th centuries. Because each region was self-sufficient, yet connected by trade and religion, each developed its own notion of culture including cuisine. Hence, there are as many "authentic" takes on pasta and sauces, for instance, as there are regions making them.

One evening at Vero, I started with crostini di pollo ($5.95). The tasty morsels of bite-sized wedges of chicken breast, dredged in flour and sautéed, were served on bite-sized toasts. A mound of fresh lettuce bathed in fruity olive oil completed the offering. It was a generous portion as are all dishes at Vero.

The peperonata ($5.95) -- sweet peppers, eggplant, eggs, onions and tomatoes -- had been sliced, chopped and topped with parmesan cheese, then baked. The medley was then cooled to room temperature and served that way. It was a delicious vegetable pie, almost lasagna-like in consistency, with flavors and textures wonderfully melded together. According to Merafina, it's mama's recipe.

Another eggplant dish, involtini di granchio ($7.95), was served warm. Thin slices of eggplant were stuffed with crabmeat, sautéed and covered with tomato sauce. It sat atop a pile of lettuce. The flavors were enticing and the colors on the plate fresh and vibrant.

There are eight salads available at Vero; each is large enough to share. While none is particularly inventive, they are all well-assembled from uncomplicated, fresh ingredients. Elba salad ($8.50), for example, was a platter of arugula, celery, walnuts, apple and big chunks of creamy gorgonzola. All salads are dressed in a supple, slightly peppery Italian olive oil.

Vero's pastas excel. Eight versions are offered including three that are made in the kitchen. The large ravioli squares ($11.95) that I tried had been stuffed with velvety ricotta cheese and spinach. The pasta was dressed with a lip-licking tomato and cream sauce topped with fresh grated parmesan. The pasta was perfect, cooked slightly al dente (not quite cooked through) and heaped, like pale gold ingots, in a small bowl.

The linguine carbonara ($8.95) was delightful. Eggs, onion, pancetta and parmesan were tossed into the pasta. Unlike many other Italian restaurants, Vero does not use cream in the recipe. According to Merafina, true carbonara never incorporates cream or milk.

Risotto refers to a method of cooking grains rather than to a specific dish. In Italy, though, risotto is a dish of mild-flavored arborio rice to which meats and vegetables are added. At Vero, the risotto funghi ($17.95) was spiked with porcini mushrooms and mild Italian sausage. The creamy rice imbued a slight nutty flavor that wed harmoniously with the funghi and meat. It was both hearty and satisfying.

Involtini di besce spada ($16.95) was one of only two dishes in which I noted the slightest disappointment. Thin slices of swordfish were rolled and stuffed with pine nuts and bread crumbs, garlic and mint. Swordfish itself is a mildly flavored fish, but the mint did not register nor was the garlic detectable; the breadcrumbs overwhelmed all.

At my house, cioppino is our traditional Christmas Eve fare. Loaded with crab, shrimp, shellfish, petrale, chopped and diced vegetables, broth and tomatoes, this fish stew has been a San Francisco favorite for more than a century. The recipe and its variations originated with Italian fishermen in North Beach.

Kristian D'Angelo's aromatic zuppa di pesce ($15.95) is a slimmed-down version of this classic; yet the flavors are similar and the thick stew nourishing and rich. Calamari, shrimp, swordfish, sea bass, clams and peppers are employed. I look forward to sitting on the patio of Vero some dreary day this winter and washing down a bowl of this savory zuppa with a glass or two of mellow sangiovese and hunks of fresh bread.

Cartoccio di mare ($14.50), not as down-home pleasing as the zuppa, was a so-so presentation of calamari stuffed with bread crumbs, tomatoes, olive oil and garlic. The squid teetered on the rubbery side and lovely pan seared scallops and sautéed spinach accompanied. The plate just needed more oomph.

Desserts are similarly simple and straightforward. The creamy tiramisu ($7) was cloud-light with flavorful overtones of espresso and chocolate shavings -- it is D'Angelo's own recipe. Light and puffy profiteroles ($6) were filled with rich whipped cream and coated in lush chocolate sauce. I have encountered profiteroles in Italy before, even though they are of French origin. Also French-rooted are the creamy chocolate and amaretto mousses ($6). But I quibble: yes, amaretto is Italian.

The wine list is of interest with most selections hailing from Italia. Nearly all the reds and most of the whites are Tuscan. Prices are sane ranging from $21 to $84 with the majority priced in the $20 to $30 bracket. Most selections are available by the glass ($6 to $12). Corkage fee is $15.

There is much to recommend. Vero's menu is unusual and appealing, the prices are right and the ambiance is cheery and chic. Service is prompt but never rushed. Andrea Merafina hopes to change the menu every four months to take advantage of seasonal harvests and incorporate local foods into traditional recipes. I just hope they keep the zuppa on the menu for that dreary day this winter.

Vero Ristorante

Reservations: yes
Website: no
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: wine and beer
Children: yes
Outdoor dining: covered patio
Party and banquet facilities: yes
Take out: yes
Catering: no
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

Vero Ristorante
530 Bryant St., Palo Alto, (650) 325-8376
Hours: Monday - Thursday, 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.


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