Publication Date: Friday Aug 7, 1998
Restaurant Review: Pasta in a piazzaDespite bumpy service, Caffe Riace is a welcome addition to Palo Alto's casual-chic dining scene
by Laura Reiley
Water pours down over her powerful body, leaving her skin shiny, cold and always just blurred by motion. She holds a washing machine aloft. Stippled with the verdigris of oxidized copper, the machine's maw is opened wide, releasing a cascade of water into the fountain below.
The sculpture by Brian Goggin presides over the courtyard at the Sheridan Apartments. Maybe it stands as a paean to woman's triumph over housework or maybe it's some Duchamp-meets-ancient Greece millennial snarkiness. Either way, she hefts the washer while all around surges the bustle of Caffe Riace.
The nine-month-old cafe was named after a small town in Calabria, in the tip of the Italian boot that owners Franco and Giuseppe Carrubba call home. New to the restaurant business, the family envisioned this as a casual spot to stop in for a coffee or gelato, a place that would lure young Maurizio Carrubba away from Sicily. Maurizio's not here yet, and the concept has evolved way beyond just a cup of joe.
Palo Alto Realtors and lawyers have made Caffe Riace a serious lunchtime watering hole. But it is on a warm summer night that the cafe's real charms are apparent--the lulling thunder of the fountain, the wide expanse of intricate marble terrace, stars overhead and the spunky Sicilian fare are transporting.
The only problem is this: Before one can be transported, one needs a ticket to ride. There is no maitre d', no hostess stand, so on a busy evening just the rudiments of getting a table are tricky. Waiters rush by with tunnel vision while would-be diners wait mute and expectant. Once seated, there's no guarantee that service will show up to take an order. Clearly the restaurant is still experiencing customer feast or famine, and management hasn't become agile with staffing.
Even if service takes a while to rev up, you won't starve on the sweet baguette slices with a bowl of deep purple olive tapenade dotted with red chile flakes. The wine list is worth a substantial read, heavy on the modestly priced Italian reds. The racey acidity of a Chianti Classico or a supple Sangiovese works well with just about anything on the single-sheet menu.
On the night of our visit, the top appetizer was a simple jumble of soft sauteed bell peppers ($5.95) glistening with olive oil and flavored liberally with garlic. Garlic was a little more demurely administered to the house Caesar salad ($4.95), a parsimony that was reflected in the anchovy as well (I say if it doesn't hurt, it's not a Caesar). The simple caprese salad ($7.95) sandwiched slices of lighly salted fresh mozzarella with tomato and big leaves of fragrant basil. A twist of pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and a splash of fruity balsamic vinegar lifted it up. The trio did the same for a traditional Sicilian salad of diced oranges ($6.75) flecked with scallion and red onion. Certainly unusual, the salad was marred by too many orange seeds.
Entrees were a little less bright and assertive. Wide, slithery pappardelle noodles ($13.95) came ladled with a dusky sauce of fresh and dried porcini mushrooms and perhaps a bit of Marsala--it was pleasant, but not much more. A broiled rib-eye steak ($14.95) was our favorite main dish, perfectly cooked and buried under sauteed button mushrooms and scallion rounds, and served with rustic mashed potatoes and still-crisp broccoli florets. The house's signature farfalle dish ($12.95), topped with tomato sauce thickened with ricotta, sausage, peas and mushrooms, could have used a more aggressively flavored sausage and firmer noodles.
The desserts, however, require no tinkering. Creme caramel is smooth, plush and bathed in a deeply burnt sugar syrup. The housemade gelatos are intense, with the hazelnut ahead of other flavors by a nose. And the tiramisu is ethereal and boozy, with a more discernable chocolate taste than many versions of this menu staple. I lingered over coffee, listened to the sound of water pouring in the fountain behind me, and thought inexplicably about doing laundry.
Caffe Riace, 200 Sheridan Ave., Palo Alto, 328-0407
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. daily
Atmosphere: Two huge statues of ancient Greek sentinels, naked and grim, stand guard over the wide terrace dining area dotted with enough S. Pellegrino cafe umbrellas to convince you you're in Italy. The inside dining room is small and very busy with waitstaff and kitchen traffic.
Highlights: Appetizers and desserts are simple and spectacular, from a jumble of roasted sweet peppers to velvety hazelnut gelato, and the wine list features unusual inexpensive Italian bottlings.
About the owner: Franco Carrubba built the Sheridan apartment building and other recent additions to Palo Alto's landscape. While new to the restaurant business, his son, Giuseppe, points to Franco's long history of being a gracious host and making his own prosciutto, wine and Port.
Reservations - recommended Credit cards - yes Parking - lot Beer and wine only - yes Takeout - yes Banquet - no Wheelchair access - yes Non-smoking - yes Outdoor seating - yes