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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Long on Style: A lively bar and after-dinner treats are the best bets at Valeriano's.

Waiting Game

In which we ponder the quest for a satisfying dining experience at Valeriano's

By Christina Waters

ON ONE OF OUR recent dinners at Valeriano's, even the waiter agreed with us. "I don't know why they keep it on the menu." He was talking about the hard, unripe cantaloupe accompanying the prosciutto and melon appetizer. But he might have been referring to a few other things as well.

Choosing early evenings in midweek, we recently spent several very long, unsatisfying evenings dining at Valeriano's, wondering just where the magic went. Armed with a prized location in the heart of Los Gatos--where glamorous competition has sprouted up with vigor in the past few years--Valeriano's packs a long menu of Mediterranean classics into its Victorian interior tinted the colors of the Italian flag. Vintage or not, the restaurant's poorly lit interior creates a gloom in which neither food nor companions are appealingly visible. It's a strain to dine in such a murky environment, though a nice bottle of Zaca Mesa Syrah 1996 ($30) did its best.

The waiters here look the part--attractive, silver-haired and seasoned--but their lethargy tells a tale of distraction and disinterest. On one occasion the waiter practically refused to listen to our order; on another the server repeated two out of three items incorrectly and failed to even mention the evening's specials. A whole lot of people exist here to keep those jade-green water glasses filled, but not enough care whether food is brought to the table hot and freshly prepared.

One evening my salad capriccioso ($9.95) offered unripe tomatoes and slices of the same inedible melon that showed up on Jack's prosciutto appetizer ($12.95), as well as a fistful of walnuts, tired gorgonzola, a few prawns and a lot of lettuce, some of which was noticeably yellowed. Next week, the fungi griglia ($11.95) consisted of a small undercooked portobello on undercooked spinach covered with partially melted mozzarella and a topknot of limp fried onions. We couldn't eat it, but had to wait almost an hour for our entrees. They're coasting on past laurels here.

In a world of fine bakeries, Valeriano's appears to be cutting corners with its tasteless loaves of what we used to call "goo bread." Across the street is a chain bakery with product that had more flavor, texture and integrity.

One night Jack's veal scaloppini ($20.95) with porcini gravy, sun-dried tomatoes and pancetta tasted nice and rich. Overwrought, yes, but still tasty. My brick-oven roasted duck ($20.95)--highly anticipated during the long, long wait--arrived at the table cold. With it came dry, room-temperature mashed potatoes. The panna cotta ($5.95) we split for dessert was ordinary, and probably suffered by comparison with a terrific version we'd had the week before at a tiny place run by some young cooks from Italy.

When we visited again, Jack decided to order something easy--ravioli del mio nonno ($14.95)--and I tried the roast duck again. The bread was still gummy, the service was bordering on hostile and the wait for our entree was interminable (one hour). If the kitchen can't handle this many people, stop taking reservations or train the staff to deal cordially with delays. The duck on this occasion--two stiff legs resting in a tasty dried cherry sauce--was not only tepid (as if it had been sitting around for a while before being brought to the table) but actually tasted reheated. The mashed potatoes might have been from the batch I sampled the week before. Jack's ravioli--like many ravioli filled with a mixture of veal, pork, chicken and ricotta--revealed no flavor. The tomato sauce was good, but the pasta itself was thick and tough.

We were furious by the time our desserts of chocolate gelato ($6) and fresh strawberries and blueberries arrived ($7). The waiter had described the dish as also containing raspberries. It didn't, but the other berries were fine. Perhaps the solution is obvious. Come to the lively bar at Valeriano's for a pre-dinner cocktail. Then go around the corner for dinner at Steamer's, and return to Valeriano's for gelato and berries. If you feel that I'm being insulting, consider how the restaurant insults its dinner patrons. In the words of a wise old Italian: Caveat emptor.

Ristorante Valeriano
Address: 160 W. Main St., Los Gatos
Phone: 408.354.8108
Cuisine: Italian
Entrees: $19.95-$25.95

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From the February 17-23, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

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