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Family Ways

[whitespace] Pezzella's Villa Napoli
Christopher Gardner

Relativity Theory: The extended family members who work at Pezella's gather together almost daily for lunch after the noontime buzz subsides.

Forty fabulous years haven't hurt the food, the ambience or the service at Pezzella's Villa Napoli

By Andrew X. Pham

PEZZELLA'S HAS that special something that few places in the valley can boast: 40 years of continuing success. By virtue of superior management, consistently excellent cuisine and a sense of family among its employees, this restaurant has become a Sunnyvale landmark. Theirs is mama food, and dutiful patrons haven't cut the apron strings all these years.

Even the wait staff is devoted. Some have been with the restaurant nearly two decades, a lifetime in waiter years. Pezzella's management educates from the bottom up: longtime patrons have witnessed busboys graduating to headwaiter status, dishwashers to cooks.

The heart of Pezzella's is, of course, the Pezzella family, which now has grown into four restaurateurs spanning three generations. The hands-on owners--Pat, Vince and Vince's son, Ralph--putter around like the place is their own home kitchen, and perhaps it is. Even after 40 years, the extended family gathers almost daily for a late lunch after the noontime buzz subsides.

The restaurant resembles its namesake, Villa Napoli, a sprawling villa set amid its own greenery, a unique oasis on the asphalt arteries and concrete of El Camino Real. Thick walls and a rising timber-frame roof gather in warmth, creating a cozy, closed-in feeling. Yet the ambience is anything but claustrophobic. Upholstered booths, generously spaced, allow tables plenty of elbow room. Intimate alcoves are tucked around the room's edges--very popular for romantic dinners. There's a bar at the front of the restaurant where even the most well-padded patron can comfortably lounge in generous low-slung swivel chairs. Despite the restaurant's age, there is no clutter of knickknacks, just a tasteful collection of prints, vases and potted plants.

We started off with Pezzella's version of bruschetta ($7). The bread was, in fact, pizza dough, pinched into thumb-sized morsels and deep fried. Once golden and crunchy, the mini drumsticks were raked onto a plate and covered with a tumble of vine-ripened tomatoes, diced with fresh basil and garlic and drizzled with plenty of olive oil. Strangely, the dish wasn't too greasy, although we must admit the crunchy pizza dough was somewhat flavorless.

We couldn't resist sampling the traditional favorite, scampi ($7.50), a succulent quartet of prawns butterflied and sautéed in a garlicky white wine cream sauce. The evening's primi piatti ($8)--lightly marinated portobello mushrooms grilled with olive oil--won us over with its simple gracefulness. Our petite mushroom, tenderly charred and sliced like flank steak, had the texture of a cross between filet mignon and scallops. The earthy strips were draped across a small salad of arugula, red lettuce and endive in faint balsamic vinaigrette.

The restaurant rendered its main fare in three areas: pizza, pasta and entrees. The pizzas, all thin crust, ranged from 10-inch pies ($10.50- $12.75) to 14-inchers ($14-$18.50). Pastas ($8-$10.50) ran the dry-goods gamut: spaghetti, ravioli, rigatoni, tortellini and fettuccine. Homemade pastas are generally a better bet than dried, and Pezzella's was no exception, impressing with their fresh cannelloni and manicotti.

We took the evening's special ($15): house seafood ravioli. A red marbled plate arrived saturated with a sweet and spicy marinara chock-full of scallops and shrimp. The red sea's centerpiece was two large pasta sheets stuffed with tender crab and ricotta filling, then origami'd into dainty purses. The pasta peaked precisely at al dente; the fillings sustained that perfect balance between seafood and cheese, neither too creamy nor too briny.

One of the best things that can be said about an amiable restaurant like Pezzella's is that the proprietor and his kitchen are more than willing to accommodate almost any wish. For instance, upon request he made us a special penne with chicken, artichoke hearts, scallops and onions in a very light, buttery white wine sauce ($10). When your tongue won't be appeased by the menu, let it loose to order for itself.

For dessert, we enjoyed a classic tiramisu ($5.50) made with ladyfingers gloved in rum espresso and mascarpone cream. The housemade cannoli ($4.25) had an excellent crispy pastry shell spiraled over a somewhat thick, but not too sweet, pastry cream bejeweled with crushed pistachios. Our favorite was the tortufo ($5), a chocolate truffle with ground nuts, filled with chocolate gelato and served on a huge platter netted with chocolate syrup and rosettes of whipped cream.

In a time when the valley's face is changing so fast we hardly recognize it, Pezzella's is a classic--an institution so well-tended and inherently talented it's still running, after all these years, on its own merit. Congratulations, and thanks for all the good meals.

Pezzella's Villa Napoli
Cuisine: Classic Italian
Ambience: Tastefully aged
Menu: High end, but not overpriced
Hours: Lunch: Tue.-Fri. 11:30am-2:30pm; dinner Tue.-Sat. 5-10:30pm
Address: 1025 W. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale
Phone: 408/738-2400

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From the January 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro.

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