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June 13-19, 2007

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First Bite

Il Piccolo Caffe

By Alastair Bland

With one of the premier locations and best views along the Marin coast, Il Piccolo Caffe on the spirited Sausalito waterfront could probably charge twice what it does for its big, ample portions and get away with it without drawing a glance of suspicion.

My guest and I ordered and paid at the counter, then received directions on where to sit. The young man at the register told us we could not, unfortunately, enjoy the back patio, which hangs over the water. Some policy loophole required instead that we sit at an inferior location along the side of the restaurant, amidst several rustic, splintery tables and under an awning of draping ship ropes and plastic vines. With a glass of 2005 Valle Antica Chianti ($6), we softened while checking out the overhead artwork, the antique piano just inside the door, the artsy photos on the wall taken at Burning Man and the numerous old boat props stationed along the railings, benches and tables.

The food came in a snap. The formaggio platter ($12) carried an air of elegance and pomp, as cheeses tend to do when dressed in luscious dark-brown vinaigrette and bedded on a layer of greens. When I got a closer look and began to eat, however, the mountainous portion revealed itself to be exactly what it was: an excessive amount of entry-level mozzarella, blue cheese, brie and red delicious apple slices, all looking just a bit tired and heavy under the dressing. I ate a half-pound or so before quitting.

The pasta pomodoro ($10), a penne pasta, watery red sauce and scant evidence of the alleged basil, was a disappointment, something my business-major college roommate might have whipped up in five minutes between classes. My companion and I nibbled, contemplated and deemed it boring, though the seagulls waddling along the ground and stalking us with their black eyes would have gone ape over it.

Leave it to me to find grounds for complaining, but I really have only nice things to say about the insalata al tonno ($9). High and mighty and piled with tomatoes, onions, arugula and what must have been one heckuva can of tuna, the salad came drizzled with a mildly acidic olive oil dressing. It was a delicate and delicious relief from the everlasting cheese plate. The large glass of wine, too, lingered on and melded well with the fish. I distributed my efforts and picked at the cheese while my vegan guest reconsidered her pasta before sighing and calling for a takeout box.

Il Piccolo Caffe opens daily at 7am as a traditional Tuscan espresso bar and pastry counter, and while I may hold off for a while before trying the cheese platter again (which I'm still working on and don't expect to finish before autumn), I see no reason not to stop in some day soon for a hot drink and frittata. Il Piccolo Caffe, 660 Bridgeway, Ste. 3, Sausalito. 415.289.1195.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.