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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Traditional With a Twist: I Gatti chef David Shabani's dishes bear the signature of a cook who creates with joy and inspiration yet cleaves to the basics of good Italian cooking.

Tuscan Touches

I Gatti had its ups and downs, but it's grown into an Italian restaurant worth a drive over the hill

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

SOME NIGHTS I lie awake thinking about Italian food and the restaurants that serve it. The whole idea gets under my skin. Really, it does. The promise of a good pasta dish is so intoxicating, in fact, that I can fantasize days in advance about a meal I plan to have.

The symptoms of this affliction were never more acute than before my last visit to I Gatti in Los Gatos. But it was more anticipatory anxiety than pleasant anticipation, in this case. For I've dined at this restaurant many times now and have come away with nearly as many different impressions. When the place first opened, everything we tasted came from the kitchen on golden heels. I bragged about the pasta dishes and the meats and desserts as well. The wine list, too, was very good. All comments were favorable. But then came the middle visits, and the disappointments.

Though most of what we sampled remained acceptable back then, we experienced an unevenness in both the kitchen and the dining room. The flag of suspicion was raised. "Just a flash in the pan," I once commented at the door after a mediocre meal.

But all restaurants of merit go through stages of development in their rise to excellence. With that in mind, I am pleased to report that after this latest visit my faith in I Gatti has been fully restored. What I sampled this go-around proved the best I've had since the restaurant first opened in 1994. All guests agreed that everything from appetizer to dessert was nearly flawless. If it weren't for the unsmiling hostess, we would have applauded on our way out the door. But nothing in this life is perfect. Not here, not anywhere.

I Gatti fits like a glove along peaceful, gentrified Main Street in Los Gatos. It's a little room, but not crowded or cramped like so many small restaurants. Tables have been judiciously spaced for patron comfort. You sit amid earthy Tuscan trappings where hues of terra cotta applied in a fresh, original manner suggest the work of an artist, not some bored designer working with cookie-cutter motifs. Sitting in the confines of I Gatti makes you feel that you're dining in a trattoria midway along the boot. I was most taken by the way the vent ducts were exposed and how the earth tones were set against a stony arch of cerulean blue. Nice touches all around.

The menu presents a manageable selection of stylized Italian recipes that wear the signature of a chef who cooks with joy and inspiration, creating dishes that are innovative and yet cleave to the basics of good Italian cooking. We began with La Caprese ($8.95), a plate of fresh mozzarella cut into circles and served in an overlapping row with slices of sweet yellow and red tomatoes. Basil and olive oil were then applied, but sparingly. Stunning in its simplicity, this opener proved light and healthy--a particularly good choice if you're watching calories.

Two pasta specialties followed, one rich and demanding, the other light and refreshing in composition. The first, Agnolotti al Gorgonzola ($12.95), served pasta moons filled with gorgonzola cheese and then robed with a creamy pungent sauce based on more gorgonzola and flavored with toasted hazelnuts. The second, Linguini Nere ($15.95), presented noodles darkened with ink from the squid and simmered with seared lobster and white Gulf prawns in a sauce of fresh tomato, garlic and basil.

Our hunger got the best of us that night and we ordered one more appetizer, a delicious Pizza Pomodoro ($8.95) baked to a golden underside with fresh tomatoes, roasted garlic, basil and mozzarella. We popped these delicately crispy slices into our mouths until all that was left was the sheen of olive oil on the pan.

For entrees we stuck to meats, ordering the lamb shank ($17.95) braised in a sauce with porcini mushrooms, red wine and garlic (absolutely delicious and our favorite), and the Filletto alla Balsamico ($23.75), also very good, but marred by an overapplication of the balsamic vinegar and sherry reduction. In fact, the sauce--though glossy and expertly composed--flooded the dish and soaked the yellow and green beans to such a degree that I couldn't help but imagine them victims of a sea tragedy.

As I mentioned earlier, the hostess was unsmiling and regarded us and everybody else as if we were unwanted guests. Our waitress, on the other hand, was a sweetheart who managed our table with professional dispatch. Having worked at the posh Water Grill in L.A.--and other establishments of note--she certainly took pride in what she was doing, treating us with respect and describing the dishes as if she herself created the recipes.

I Gatti has come of age and, in my opinion, rivals Cafe Marcella for the best New Age Italian restaurant in Los Gatos. The chef understands the basics but isn't afraid to step beyond the boundary lines to create refreshing twists on traditional recipes.

I Gatti
Address: 25 Main St, Los Gatos
Phone: 408.399.5180
Hours: Lunch Tue-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm, dinner Tue-Sat 5-10pm and Sun 5-9:30pm
Prices: $5.75-$25

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From the July 5-12, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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