by Susan Bryan
Executives in suits, mothers with babies and lunchtime regulars find their way up to Fambrini's Terrace Caffe, hidden away above the Bank of America on El Camino Real near California Avenue. Climb the outside stairway to the second-floor terrace, or take the elevator inside the building to the second floor. You'll find a small cafe with a dozen tables inside and at least that many outside on a large, tree-shaded terrace. Through the leaves of the trees, you can see the towers of Palo Alto Square and rooftops of less imposing edifices. Beyond the manmade structures lie the shadow-cooled hills of the coastal range.
The expansive view is quite a contrast to the tiny galley kitchen where Patti Fambrini and her crew cook up everything from stuffed pork rolls to espresso brownies. Each day, you'll find half a dozen salads, a roster of regular sandwiches and a specials board listing one low-fat entree along with sandwich specials and hot dishes.
Start with the salad sampler, which gives you grazing rights to three different salads for $5.75. Fambrini's career as a caterer shows up in her attention to the zesty seasonings, festive colors and interesting textures of each distinctly different melange.
Her tarragon chicken salad puts the emphasis on chicken. Big chunks of white meat are mixed with diced green apples. Then everything is smothered in a sweet mayonnaise dressing flavored with dried tarragon. Penne al dente is tossed in a tart basil dressing. A few grilled chicken slivers, crisp green pepper shavings, pine nuts, carrot slivers and green onions are thrown in for panache.
The sesame noodle salad depends on spaghetti noodles in a sesame/soy dressing; chunks of red and green pepper plus zucchini ensure you get your veggies as well as pasta.
Once you find your favorite salad, you can order it as a one-salad meal on a bed of lettuce with a whole wheat baguette and butter (tarragon chicken $4, penne $3.50, sesame noodle $3.25).
If you want a hot lunch dish, make sure you arrive promptly at noon. Everything is prepared fresh daily in limited quantities. Late arrivals often find their choices erased from the specials board just as they're getting ready to order. "This is what you call a virtual menu," quipped one of the regulars as he saw his favorite wiped off the list of possibilities.
The two hot specials I tried were not as carefully prepared as the salads. My low-fat tomato Florentine was stuffed with a mild-flavored mixture of spinach and ricotta bound with egg. A quick trip through the microwave oven warmed the couscous on the plate, but left the bottom of the spinach filling uncooked inside the tomato ($5).
Another day, my pasta del giorno was cooked to order--but to the cook's order, not mine. It was left to languish past al dente to flaccid done-ness. A sweet basil cream sauce with red peppers didn't redeem the mistake ($5). I might have fared better if I'd chosen one of Fambrini's heartier entrees such as stuffed pork rolls with red potatoes, meatballs or lasagna.
Entrees are sold a la carte. For $2 extra, you can add salad, bread and butter. If there's a Caesar salad involved, snap up the whole meal deal. This big, crunchy version has a wonderfully garlicky dressing flecked with shreds of sharp Parmesan. If all you get is a regular salad, skip the extras. The regular salad is so small, it's not worth the extra bucks.
Soups are priced three ways: with salad and bread ($4.25), in a large bowl ($3.25) or in a coffee-cup-size bowl ($2). The hearty chicken goulash I tried was so fabulous, it made me wish I'd had a chance to taste more. The spicy stock was so full of chicken chunks that there was scarcely enough room left for a quorum of green pepper, celery and onions.
Sandwiches can be ordered on everything from Dutch crunch rolls to sourdough wheat baguettes. You can have a sandwich made with any of the meat salads. A tarragon chicken salad sandwich, for instance, goes for $4.25, just a quarter more than the same salad on a plate. You can also get an old-fashioned meat loaf sandwich ($3.75) or the cafe's popular grilled chicken breast with "pestonaise" sauce ($5.25).
The regular sandwiches look like real winners but the vegetarian panini I ordered was a disappointment. The sun-dried tomato spread was bland, the grilled vegetables had none of the smoky flavor of wood-fired beauties, and the foccacia bread was an almost gummy white bread impostor ($4.75). After trying two hot specials and the panini of the day, I'd say you're better off sticking with the regular menu items that have already won the approval of the cafe's clientele.
Although Fambrini's is crowded at lunch, it's open from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Breakfast eggs and toast with either bacon or ham go for $4.25. For morning or afternoon snacks, there are espresso drinks and big Italian sodas made with Torani flavorings. Fambrini's makes its own rich espresso brownies ($1.25) as well as cheesecake ($2.25) and muffins ($1.25). The view, which is free for the taking, is delicious anytime of day.
Fambrini's Terrace Caffe, 2600 El Camimo Real, Palo Alto, 858-1268
Hours: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; closed Saturday and Sunday.
Atmosphere: No frills inside, tree-shaded terrace outside
Highlights: Soups and salads, fabulous view
About the owner: Patti Fambrini zipped through the hotel and restaurant program at City College in San Francisco, helped her sister open four Swiss-Italian cafes in the city, then got married to a fellow who refused to budge from the Peninsula. "My husband wouldn't move to the city, so I started catering down here," says Fambrini. "I did a lot of corporate, weddings and private functions. When I started looking for a new kitchen, a friend who works in the building told me about this place. We moved in 2 1/2 years ago and it's been great. I'm still doing a lot of catering, but I also have very, very loyal clients at the cafe."
no: credit cards
yes: takeout, banquet, wheel chair, & non-smoking,
yes: outdoor seating
Back up to the Table of Contents Page