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November 25, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 25, 2005

Caffe Riace more style than substance Caffe Riace more style than substance (November 25, 2005)

Bland Italian fare leaves no mark

by Dale F. Bentson

When I go to an upscale restaurant, investing time and money, I hope the meal will be memorable for at least 24 hours. Unfortunately, I had trouble remembering much of the food the mornings following any of my visits to the popular Caffe Riace. Good thing I had notes to work from.

Tucked behind the Santa Clara County Court House and sandwiched between nondescript concrete buildings is the Italian garden oasis of Caffe Riace. Franco Carrubba and his family started the business nearly 8 years ago as a small café. Now, the all-outside dining area seats between 45 and160, depending on the weather. Heaters, a large tented area and a small interior alcove shelter diners from inclement conditions.

With its abundance of decoration, the restaurant reminded me of a souvenir shop in Orvieto or a theme restaurant at Disneyland. The dining area features a park sized fountain with a water spewing nymph, large potted olive trees, oversized statues of Roman warriors, ceramics tacked to side walls, a painted cart, Italian motor scooters at the entrance, umbrellas, decorative tiles, and hummingbird feeders hung from trees.

The sturdy steel-and-glass patio furniture was comfortable for prolonged sitting, however, thanks to thick cushions that rest atop each chair. Despite the plethora of ornamentation, I needed a miner's helmet to read the menu at night. The miniature candle that adorned each table was no brighter than a child's nightlight.

For starters, the Insalata Siciliana ($11.95) had slices of fresh oranges, lettuce, and spring and red onions, drizzled with balsamic, olive oil and crushed red pepper. Nothing noteworthy here. The ingredients were fresh and mild mannered but doggedly overpriced despite the large presentation.

Fried eggplant or Malanzane is a classic Italian dish of celebrated flavors. Sliced eggplant is dredged in egg and flour and quickly fried. Riace's rendition, ($7.95) with garlic, ricotta salata (soft cheese), olive oil, oregano and balsamic vinaigrette failed to excite my taste buds. Perhaps the blandness was from the tame olive oil or perhaps because it was served cold.

The Antipasto sampler ($11.95) was a platter of bruschetta (chopped tomato, garlic and olive oil atop toasted bread), caprese (tomato slices with mozzarella and fresh basil leaf), melenzane (roasted eggplant) and roasted peppers. This was my choice as an appetizer - a smattering of all the antipasti and enough to share.

The pasta selection is formidable at Riace and much of it made in-house as are the focaccia, sausage and desserts. 9 Learning from his grandmother in Sicily, Mr. Carrubba has been making sausages his entire life.) Additionally, Caffe Riace offers 8-10 specials daily on the seasonally adjusted menu.

Pasta Ceppo Riace ($14.95) was tube-shaped pasta with homemade sausage, mushrooms, green onion and peas covered with tomato-ricotta gravy. It was an enormous plate of food lacking in any distinction other than its size. The creamy ricotta and tomato sauce begged for fresh chopped herbs to spark it to life.

Similar was Penne Norma ($14.95), with pasta and chopped tomato in the same tomato-ricotta sauce. What made this dish better were the few pieces of chopped fennel that added interest to the plate. Had there been more herbs and a more concentrated sauce, this version could have excelled. Instead, it only hinted at potential.

Salsiccia Sicilana ($17.95) were grilled, house-made sausages and tube pasta buried in tomato sauce. It was a mountain of a meal, something the Cardinal football team might relish after a long day on the gridiron. The fennel and wine sausages were ever so mild and the mantle of tomato sauce Radio Flyer red.

There just weren't enough mushrooms to make a difference in the Pappardelle Porcini ($18.95). The creamy sauce of cheese, porcini mushrooms, chopped tomato and green onion combined to make this little more than comfort food: filling, but unremarkable.

Grilled chicken breast topped with too few olives, tomato, chopped Italian parsley and a side of pasta, the Pollo Puttanesca ($21.95) was mundane. I yearned for more pungent olives -- something memorable in the mouth.

Desserts were hit and miss. Of the half-dozen house-made gelatos and sorbets, the almond-flavored Torroncino gelato ($6.50) was creamy and too sweet for my taste buds, oozing over the sides of the elfin cup in which it was served. Better was the coffee gelato ($6.50). Rich and creamy, it was like a defrosting espresso. The consistency was perfect -- soft and gummy, reminiscent of the gelatos of Florence.

Tiramisu ($6.50) was possibly the best dish I had at Caffe Riace. The bottom layer of ladyfingers were soaked in espresso and the creamy tiers were not overly sweetened. Cocoa powder was judiciously sprinkled and not layered on.

More than 700 wines await in the cellar. A fine wine list, with an especially interesting Italian selection, prices running the gamut. One evening, I chose a Langhe Nebbiolo, shockingly overpriced at $50. Nebbiolo is a light red grape variety mostly grown in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy.

Barbera, light red wines from Piedmont, and one of the few bargains left on the world wine market, were also steeply priced despite being of slightly older vintage. At Caffe Riace, the Barbera selection ran $55 - $100. Generally, Barbera runs $25 - $35 in local restaurants. The menu offered several less expensive Sangiovese, Valpolicella and Dolcetto from which to choose. Corkage fee is $15.

Though service was fine on most visits, diners should be warned against visiting the restaurant at the same time as large parties. One sunny noon hour, an army of office workers swarmed the restaurant. Platters of antipasti, salads and cold cuts were set on long buffet tables. The single file legion nearly stretched around the entire perimeter of the restaurant. So focused was the staff on hauling out platters of food and filling water glasses that the remaining diners might as well have cooked their own food and bussed their own tables. I am sure this was an important revenue source for the restaurant, but I was stuck over an hour and a half hour between entry and exit.

At Caffe Riace, portions are large but barely register on the taste-o-meter. The food is listless and would be greatly enhanced with a little more attention from the kitchen. There is no pungency, no intensity of flavor, no concentration of what makes Italian cuisine one of the best in the world. Instead the emphasis is on kitschy ornamentation and sizeable rations. If food had more satisfying flavors, we wouldn't need such distractions.
Caffe Riace Reservations: yes Website: Credit cards: yes Parking: city lots Alcohol: beer an wine Children: yes Outdoor dining: yes Party and banquet facilities: yes Noise level: low Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

Caffe Riace 200 Sheridan Ave. Palo Alto, (650) 328-0407
Hours: Daily 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; 5 to 10 p.m.

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