Restaurant Review: Good food--no question about it

Publication Date: Friday Dec 12, 1997

Restaurant Review: Good food--no question about it

University Avenue's newest Italian haunt, Pasta ?, struggled to find a name, but it's no reflection on the cuisine

by Karen Dachey

It took the owners of Palo Alto's newest Italian restaurant an abnormally long time to finally decide what to call the place. In fact, the restaurant was open for almost three months before they finally settled on a name. The first two they tried ran into trademark problems--other restaurants already had those names. So, in a fit of both frustration and irony, they went with "Pasta ?"

Fortunately, no question mark attaches to Pasta ?'s gastronomic purpose. This likable place consistently serves up a bargain.

Like several restaurants that have replaced retail premises, Pasta ? has to cram its tables into an unforgiving space. But the shoebox layout of the former Golden Crest Bakery has been thoughtfully refurbished to create an impression of airiness and light. Pale terra-cotta-toned walls soar up to a skylight; a massive arched window brightens the storefront which, weather permitting, is left open to the street. The look is Italian-inspired and simple: bare-wood tables, raffia-seated chairs, attractive tiles. Function and artistry combine in an arrangement of halogen spotlights suspended above a series of photographic still-lifes.

The amiable young waitstaff get inconsistent back-up from the restaurant's small army of bussers. One evening all was brisk efficiency: our basket of nicely chewy ciabatta bread was regularly replenished, water glasses kept filled, special requests met with lightning speed, and an oversight in stocking the tabletop jar that holds cutlery and paper napkins swiftly remedied. Yet at the same uncrowded hour exactly a week later, the basket that this time contained a tasty sourdough was taken away before we could ask for more, and condiments--at least at our table--seemed in short supply (no salt or pepper, let alone the welcome bowl of olive oil and balsamic vinegar set out previously).

Our waiter was so apologetic and quick to rectify his one slip-up of the evening that it seems a shame to have to mention it. But bills are bills, and ours was off by $16. In every other respect, he was faultless, asking the right questions at the right time, supplying extra plates when he correctly inferred that we'd be sharing appetizers, helping us out when we couldn't decide on which of two white wines to order by bringing complimentary tastes for comparison.

We opted for the Vestini Trebbiano d'Abruzzo ($18 a bottle, $4.25 a glass), one of several Italian offerings on a list that ranges in price from $16 for a Chilean Merlot to $25 for a California (Kendall-Jackson) Chardonnay.

The budget-conscious menu caters to contemporary health concerns (selected pastas are served with no cheese, light oil, and little salt; red meat gets barely a mention) but it doesn't try to be adventurous. You'll find several old favorites, including Caesar and Caprese salads, Fettuccine Alfredo, and Bolognese sauce.

Appropriately, for a place that bills itself a casual "Italian Eatery," the cross-regional repertoire focuses on simple dishes showcasing fresh ingredients sensibly combined. Typical are the salads, my favorite being a well-balanced mix of pristine baby spinach leaves, red onion, goat cheese and walnut pieces lightly dressed in a spritely lemon vinaigrette. The generously sized half-portion ($3.50) makes a great beginning to a meal; the full portion ($5.95) is enough for a light lunch.

Pasta ?'s grills are in constant use. One result is a savory starter of red bell pepper, eggplant, mushroom, and zucchini served with mixed salad greens ($3.75 half; $5.50 full). My only criticism was that the eggplant, though attractively grill-marked, was underdone.

It might be hard to mess up bruschetta with fresh tomato and basil ($3.25), but that's no reason to withhold praise for Pasta ?'s wonderfully flavorful version. Almost as good is the toasted bread with portobella mushroom slices sauteed with balsamic vinegar ($4.95). The only disappointment here is the surprising skimpiness of the portion.

Listed between appetizers and pasta dishes is a short selection of sandwiches made with Il Fornaio ciabatta and served with mixed greens. I've enjoyed the "Vegetariano" ($4.75), which is stuffed with roasted red and green bell peppers, grilled zucchini, eggplant, and--when not taking an unannounced leave of absence--sun-dried tomato.

When vegetables don't play a starring role, they're most often replaced with chicken, seafood, or Italian sausage. One evening we ordered a "light entree" of expertly grilled chicken ($7.50) perfumed with rosemary and garnished with lemon. Chopped fresh tomatoes and mildly seasoned sauteed spinach were delicious accompaniments, though the overbaked cubed potatoes included some horribly dried-out lumps.

Pasta, of course, is Pasta ?'s mainstay, and my experience suggests that the kitchen has got its preparation and presentation down to an exact science. Impeccable timing ensures that the noodles--made from scratch at the San Francisco parent restaurant--reach the tables neither more nor less than al dente. And careful saucing does them justice; you won't be left with a pool of surplus liquid (nor stains on your shirt).

One dish I loved was a special one evening: fresh tomato and delectably sweet rockshrimp served on spinach fettuccine ($7.50). The Spaghetti Tarantina ($6.50) was also a hit, featuring a tasty combination of mussels and calamari in a zesty garlic and tomato sauce. I was less enthusiastic about the Fettuccine Primavera ($5.50), chosen from the "light pasta" listings. The egg noodles were perfectly cooked, the vegetables fine as far as they went, but the basil-flecked tomato sauce tasted harsh.

Only one dessert was offered on my visits, and I bet you can guess what it was. Like so much else available here, Pasta ?'s tiramisu ($2.95) is familiar, fairly priced, and well-prepared. Panna cotta is now an option, and sorbets and ice-creams soon will be.

Pasta ?, 326 University Avenue, Palo Alto, 328-4585

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily

Atmosphere: Bustling contemporary trattoria

Highlights: Perfect pasta; all-round affordability

About the Owners: Pasta ? is owned by three veteran restaurateurs who joined forces 2 1/2 years ago to open Presto Pasta in San Francisco. Gianni Chiloiro came to the Bay Area from Pulia, southern Italy, in 1979. Former owner of San Francisco's Alto Gradimento and Medioevo restaurants, he currently operates GDS Foods, a service enterprise catering to local colleges. Brothers Paolo and Dominico Petrone started out as youngsters in their family's restaurant business back in Calabria, worked for many years in New York, and are well-known in Mill Valley as co-owners of Piazza D'Angelo and the Mill Valley Inn. To manage Pasta ?, the team hired Richard Mayfield, a Michigan native whose professional association with the Petrones stretches back 18 years. Executive chef is Stefano Coppola, who trained in Rome and has cooked at several of San Francisco's small Italian restaurants over the past eight years.

reservations, no

credit cards, yes

non-smoking, yes

highchairs, yes

full bar, no

takeout, yes

banquet, no

Wheelchair access, yes

Outdoor seating, no

Parking, no

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