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Photograph by George Sakkestad

No Idle Toast: Traci Hobstetter, Mauro Munoz and Franco Licata salute a trio of dishes fresh from the kitchen at Osteria.

Tuscan Treasure

Despite the proliferation of culinary competitors, Osteria still stands out for its pasta-perfect conjugation of Italian classics

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

RECENTLY I WAS asked to name the best Italian restaurant in the area. I consider this a trick question--almost impossible to answer--because Italian food varies so much. If you traveled from the north to the south of the boot, you'd probably find something different to taste in just about every town along the way. But nobody wants to hear this. They want answers.

So, here goes. What comes to mind almost every time I hear that question is a small place at the corner of Hamilton and Bryant in Palo Alto called Osteria. A spinoff of the famous La Pergola in San Francisco, this Palo Alto restaurant opened more than 13 years ago to a packed house--and for good reason. The food was, and still is, a clear example of authentic Italian cooking done by skilled chefs from Italy--inventive men willing to explore, yet mindful of Old World standards. Save for one dish (a lamb specialty covered in a sauce that was too sweet), I have yet to leave dissatisfied.

When I say this place is small, I mean it. Without a reservation, you'll be lucky to put a single foot through the door, especially after 6pm. Tables are configured close, some too close for comfort. But there are windows--many windows--to help create an illusion of space. And if that doesn't help to dispel claustrophobia, the impeccable hygiene, or the curious artwork of abstract designs in primary colors, or the aromas, or the murmur of conversation, perhaps, may settle the nerves and remove the urge to escape tight spaces.

But don't leave. Osteria is a wonderful place to have dinner, or lunch. Call it warm and communal, a gathering place for hungry people--an osteria in fact. Once the food hits the linen, you'll forget about whose eyeballs are running along your neck, or that certain perfume you smell, or that man talking on a cell phone without pause. Concentrate on the food; that's what counts.

Osteria specializes in Tuscan cuisine, a cooking with ancient roots dating back to a time when Tuscania (a municipality of Rome) was a powerful Etruscan town and dining was the most cherished form of entertainment. Meals were lavish affairs that involved many courses, lasting sometimes for an entire week. Though the affair is somewhat shortened, the heart and soul of cucina Toscana is alive and well at Osteria.

This visit we opened with a real Caesar salad ($4.50), and it wasn't thrown together like so many hip, mutated versions on so many menus today. The lettuce was in perfect condition--fresh and crunchy--and tossed in a dressing full of wine vinegar, the kind you can taste in every bite, and good olive oil too, all woven together with a nuance of anchovy.

We ordered two pasta dishes after that, plus glasses of Biticcio Chianti Classico '97, a warm, sanguine red, less rugged and more refined than most chianti wines. First out was the special of the night, mushroom-filled ravioli (handmade) in a pan-fresh tomato sauce infused with garlic. Very simple.

The second proved our favorite, spaghettini carbonara ($9.75), a dish known for its richness (literally bacon and eggs with pasta), a richness often translated into white paste by overzealous practitioners. Osteria's, however, was just the opposite. It was rich, but also light and delicate, not thick at all. The ingredients of cream, egg yolk, pancetta and garlic formed a delicious sauce that was loose and coated the tender thin noodles instead of hanging on them like cold butter.

For entrees we sampled something from the land, saltimbocca ($12.75), and something from the sea, scampi Mediterraneo ($13.75), and were pleased with both. The saltimbocca, a specialty of Rome, comprised milky, tender veal pounded flat and then rolled around tissue-thin slices of prosciutto and Parmesan cheese that oozed from the center in a rich liquid perfumed with sage.

The scampi--more correctly large shrimp--were cooked to succulence in a lemon cream sauce whispering with garlic and shallot. Both dishes came with sides of fresh carrots (in matchstick form) and garden green beans tossed to a glassy sheen in sweet butter. Even the vegetables were handled with care, not simply a gratuitous aside but designed to augment the overall presentation.

The serving staff at Osteria may run hot and cold--stone-faced one visit, smiling from ear to ear the next--but they're consistent in the way they perform their chores with precise and methodical pacing. One mishap aside, dishes arrive straight from the pans, hot and full of aroma. Linen is kept clean and crumb-free, plates removed on key, and wines poured with discretion, not glugged absent-mindedly into glasses. Questions about the restaurant are answered without sideways glances or long-winded descriptions.

It may be hard to squeeze through the door at Osteria--that's the trouble with good restaurants--but make the effort. Call ahead for reservations. Come early for dinner if you don't have them. Do what you have to do, because once you're seated you will taste delicious Italian food that reminds you--even you, the worst pessimist--that life can be good. Maybe not tomorrow, but at least while seated in Osteria.

Address: 247 Hamilton St., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.328.5700
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm; dinner Mon.-Sat. 5-10pm
Cuisine: authentic Italian
Price range: $9-$14

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From the January 27-February 2, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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