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[whitespace] Cafe Riace
Christopher Gardner

Toast to Success: Maurizio Carrubba and Manar Ba keep things running smoothly at Cafe Riace.

Cafe Riace, a robust Palo Alto trattoria, offers conviviality, homemade specialties and family-style warmth that money can't buy

By Christina Waters

OUR FRIEND PAOLO had been raving about this place, so we decided to pay a long overdue visit to Cafe Riace, a tiny establishment with a sprawling front patio wedged between two office buildings. One of many fine restaurants in the California Avenue section of Palo Alto, Riace is family-run to the max, with the sons of proprietor Francesco Carrubba amiably greeting patrons. Expert service, the kind that comes from self-assurance and personal pride, greeted us from the first moment we scored the last tiny table.

Somebody was celebrating his birthday (which eventually required the help of everyone in the room) at one table. Behind us a long table hosted a corporate dinner. Laughter and conversation filled the air--along with the romantic tones of Italian pop idol Andrea Bucelli--as we ordered from the sizable listing of fine Italian vintages. A 1993 Campo Giovanni Brunello di Montepulciano ($55) was one of the newer items on the list of old vintages. "My dad really loves wines," our waiter explained, bringing us a plate of excellent francese and olive oil for dipping. A wall of wine bottles seemed to hold the tiny kitchen counter in place. What an authentic feel this place has--more like Italy than California, we all agreed.

We decided to split a plate of insalata caprese ($7.95) as an appetizer, and little expected to be presented with a moist, creamy bufalo mozzarella as alive and delicate as any we'd recently had in Rome. Naturally it's hard to come by ripe tomatoes in the winter, but Riace did pretty well. The luscious juxtaposition of creamy cheese and pungent basil worked brilliantly. And the fragrant, balanced fruit and velvet tones of the wine did the rest.

Steaming plates of pastas passed as waiters served with flourish and pride to the delight of each table. When it was our turn, we too sighed over a gorgeous special of fresh mahi mahi ($18.95), a veritable Vesuvius of penne Norma ($13.95) and an osso bucco ($19.95) that was easily the finest I've ever tasted.

Cafe Riace makes no pretenses to be a high-end designer establishment. Every dish is made with honest expertise. No tricky trendiness here. Our waiter offered fresh gratings from a chunk of Parmesan reggiano. We accepted. The penne, luscious with eggplant and ricotta, prompted a quick return to a childhood state of pampering. The lovely fish was practically smothered under its puttanesca-style topping of olives, sun-dried tomatoes and capers. With it were mashed potatoes of incredible integrity and long, perfectly steamed green beans.

I hoarded my tender, very meaty veal shank--strewn with a dice of carrots, onions and celery and accompanied by a battalion of thick, macho rope pasta.

Each dish was wonderful, made all the more so by the simpatico cafe, its staff and our fellow diners.

At just the right moment, our proprietress came around to help us negotiate the portion of dinner that had to be packed to go. She also helped tempt us with desserts. She knew what we wanted--she knew we wanted everything--but that we couldn't possibly eat it all. So she took charge and went back to the kitchen to bring a wedge of the tiramisu she personally made that day, as well as three scoops of the house-made gelati.

So good were these desserts--a barely sweet layering of mascarpone, chocolate, cake and liquor, sided with gelati in three flavors--that we sat, wordless, with three spoons and finished up every trace. How we did it, I'll never know. But I'd do it again in a minute.

Mille grazi, Cafe Riace, and thanks for the tip, Paolo.

Cafe Riace
Address: 206 Sheridan Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650/328-0407
Hours: Dinner nightly 5-10pm; lunch Mon.-Sat. 11:30am-2pm
Entrees: Moderately priced
Extras: Warm and vivacious ambiance plus family-run attitude makes this an off-the-beaten-track treasure; alfresco dining in good weather

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From the February 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro.

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