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[whitespace] Giancarlo's Ristorante
Christopher Gardener

One-Man Dough: Giancarlo Cucumo runs the kitchen and the dining room at his self-named Morgan Hill restaurant.

Giancarlo's produces big flavors in a small space

By Andrew X. Pham

CALL IT professional intuition or call it plain old experience, but I knew the instant we stepped across the threshold of Giancarlo's that we were about to enjoy a good meal. This is saying a lot. At more than a few restaurants, forewarned by telling details, I've decided not to proceed past the maitre d' podium. A combination of things forecasts a meal's quality: the host's attitude, the room's atmosphere, the aromas, colors and shapes of the food coming out of the kitchen. It's much like house-shopping. When you walk into a good one, you just know it.

Located on Morgan Hill's main drag, Giancarlo's Ristorante cooks up a cottage warmth in its triangular dining room. Soft lighting, Italian ballads and the staff's friendliness hold the place together, sufficient for the food to make the real impression. The restaurant has been around for three years, but Giancarlo is still cooking and waiting tables with feverish enthusiasm, ranting passionately about his food, talking with flourishes of his hands. His mood is infectious.

For such a little place--a dozen tables, maybe, not including the patio--Giancarlo's stocks a respectable cellar. Eyeing the pastas, lasagna and veal, we uncorked a '95 Machiavelli Chianti Tuscany Riservia ($29), but we later discovered that Giancarlo Cucumo, executive chef and co-owner with his wife, Melissa, had a different agenda. He strongly recommended the seafood portion of the menu. When the chef-proprietor of a tiny eatery "suggests" a dish, the wise diner acquiesces.

We started with a terrina di melanzane ($5.50), a gorgeous trio of eggplant rolls regally swamped in a robustly fresh marinara. Lovely goat cheese, white as snow, mated with whole sun-dried tomatoes to flesh out the thin shell of roasted eggplant. Everything was crusted with mozzarella. To balance this deceptive richness, we split a gigantic order of grilled portobello and baby asparagus salad ($5), sharp with gorgonzola and a touch of balsamic vinaigrette. Deeply scored and marinated, the mushroom tasted smoky and as succulent as abalone.

There are only two pizzas on the menu. Our four-cheese pie was served on a wooden cutting board right from the oven. The crispy crust was Italian-thin but the cheese portions were American-generous. It served as a prologue to the recommended entrees: sea bass ($16) and seafood fettuccine ($13).

At the first sight of our entrées, we saw our trust in the chef was well placed. Attended by mashed potatoes and spinach, the bass arrived with much pomp inside an aluminum foil cocoon. We punctured the shiny seal, and the aromas that curled up recharged our appetites. Clams, mussels, prawns and calamari complemented the filet, every morsel cooked to discerning perfection, the sweet juices amplifying the tomato sauce.

Giancarlo makes all his pasta from scratch. Judging from the texture and body of our al dente fettuccine, we don't think a pasta lover could go wrong with any of his six offerings. All wound up with plenty of adeptly sautéed scallops and prawns, a generous knot of egg pasta--pumped full of tomato and whole leaves of Italian basil--satisfied our big appetites, leaving us heaving happy sighs.

It says plenty when everything, from primi to dolci, is made in-house, especially when the house is cottage-sized. Pressed into a champagne flute, the espresso gelato ($3.50), laced with chocolate and a whipped cream scarf, could have soothed even the most jaded chocoholic. The tangerine sorbet ($3.50) tantalized equally. Dolled up inside a frozen tangerine, this satiny sorbet, bursting with juice, could easily become an obsession, especially in the manner they serve it here--atop a matching mango coulis webbed with chocolate sauce.

Giancarlo's Ristorante is one place we'll revisit with big appetites. Buon gusto!

Giancarlo's Ristorante
Cuisine: Italian
Ambiance: Casual; cramped but cozy
Menu: Starters $4-$8, entrées $7-$16
Hours: Lunch Tue.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm; Dinner Tue.-Sun. 5:30-9pm
Address: 16180 Monterey Road, Morgan Hill
Phone: 408/776-2995

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From the January 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro.

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