Restaurant Review: Babbo's baffles

Publication Date: Friday Sep 29, 2000

Restaurant Review: Babbo's baffles

Food and service incongruent at popular Stanford establishment

by Mary Orlin

Mediocrity. Webster's dictionary defines this as "of but a moderate or low degree of excellence; indifferent; ordinary." Time and again, restaurants on the Peninsula that meet this definition are often packed, despite bland food and uneven service.

Babbo's, located at Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto, falls under the category of restaurants resting on former laurels. It's part of Hungarian-born Paulette and Lazlo Fono's local dynasty, sister restaurant to Bravo Fono, also at the mall. Remember the Magic Pan creperies? That was the Fono's first foray as restaurateurs. Magic Pan was later sold to Quaker Oats, and is now defunct.

Turning their attention to Palo Alto, the Fonos opened the upscale Italian Bravo Fono in 1982, as well as two Cafe Andrea and Madame Paulette's (both closed), in addition to Babbo's. Opened as a pizzeria in 1989, Babbo's now offers more Mediterranean fare.

It's easy to understand Babbo's popularity. On a sunny day, there was no better place for people watching than the umbrella-covered tables outside Babbo's. The warm, friendly greeting was the best part of two lunch visits. Once seated, however, service became brisk and gruff. We had to request water, and were barely given time to contemplate the menu.

Pesto pizza ($11.95) was prepared fresh, baked in a beautiful green- tiled wood-burning oven. Babbo's pesto--a basil, pine nut, olive oil and parmesan cheese paste--didn't earn high marks. The barely perceptible basil flavor was overwhelmed by the mozzarella topping. Although the crust was suitably puffed for a wood-burning oven creation, its overly charred bottom imparted an unwelcome charcoal taste.

At $10 for a scant handful of overdressed greens, clearly past their prime, baked herb goat cheese salad ($9.95) disappointed. Tapenade-covered croutons were hard enough to break a tooth. The goat cheese mound resembled a Hostess Snoball--devil's food cake covered with bright pink marshmallow frosting that could stretch forever. If indeed it contained Herbes de Provence, they were absent.

It's not fun paying New York prices for what should have been a California-fresh salad. Two days later, in New York, a spectacular goat cheese salad at Union Square Cafe consisted of a large plate of picked-that-day heirloom tomatoes, dotted with rich herb-marinated goat cheese. A plate of olives and a basket of breads came with it--all for the about same price as Babbo's salad. But at Babbo's you had to ask for bread.

Front-of-the-house service outdid itself on a dinner visit. Most of our party was late, but we were assured our reserved table would be held, and the staff checked on us often. This was the evening's highlight.

At the wine bar, Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc ($6.50) was poured into a hot glass, fresh from the dishwasher. A fluke? Later at dinner, a delicious bottle of Iron Horse Pinot Noir ($45) was also served with warm glasses. Using warm stemware once was forgivable, but twice--especially for an expensive bottle of red wine--was practically criminal.

We began with Caesar salad ($8.95) and peperonata pizza ($11.95). The crust wasn't overbaked this time, and was light yet sweet, thanks to roasted red peppers balancing salty homemade sausage. We deducted points for hot plates brought for the salad. Creamy anchovy-based dressing glossed whole romaine leaves, with a touch of garlic and hard-as-a-rock croutons.

Paella ($19.95) is a Babbo's specialty. It looked like an excellent execution, but that's where the good impression ended. The serving, for the price, was miniscule. All requisite ingredients--sausage, prawns, mussels, clams, chicken--were properly cooked. But the mixture failed to come together, as if it had been thrown together at the last minute with no time for flavors to blend. Even saffron rice failed to perk up the dish.

Penne alla Bolognese ($11.95) was more like hamburger helper. A tomato cream-based sauce covered ground beef and short pasta tubes. By this time, flavorless food was becoming redundant. New York steak ($21.95) was a waste of Black Angus meat. Dry and tough, it tasted only of chargrilled crust. A side of scalloped potatoes was a smooth and milky surprise.

Desserts may be what keep Babbo's patrons coming back. A lemony citron tart ($5.95) was full of zesty flavor. Paulette's bread pudding ($6.50), a warm pleasure, was speckled with raisins and coated with a rich cream sauce. Dense and bittersweet chocolate cake with raspberry sauce ($5.95) was a winner. But the dry and cakey pear almond tart ($5.75) had no evidence of almond flavor.

Here's the conundrum that baffles at Babbo's--wildly uneven service, especially between lunch and dinner, and inconsistent, often poorly executed dishes that cost an arm and a leg. Where's the value for the amount of money spent? Babbo's has become an institution, no doubt, but one left behind in the dust of other area restaurants (offering a better value) giving diners better food and excellent service at reasonable prices. In the case of Babbo's, we'll vote with our feet.

Babbo's, 717 Market St., Stanford Shopping Center Palo Alto, (650) 321-1488

Hours:11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Sunday

Atmosphere: Babbo's outdoor patio offers a great vantage point for people watching from blue gingham cloth-covered tables. Inside, the casually chic but narrow dining room looks bigger, thanks to mirrors on the back wall. Sit at the tiny four-seat wine bar and watch pizzas being assembled and baked.

Highlights: Desserts are it. The lemony citron tart, rich chocolate cake and comforting bread pudding are worth the indulgence. Choosing wisely on pizza toppings, such as peperonata with sweet roasted peppers, means the difference between good and mediocre.

Reservations - Yes Credit cards - Yes Parking Mall parking Beer & wine - Yes Takeout -Yes

Catering No

Wheelchair access Yes

Highchairs Yes Outdoor seating Yes

Banquet No Have a tasty tidbit or comment? Contact Food Editor Mary Orlin at 650-326-8210, ext. 312, or via e-mail at morlin@paweekly.com. 

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