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The Trattoria Treatment

Christopher Gardner

Cucina Con Brio: The clientele as much as anything makes the scene happen at Carpaccio, a neighborhood Italian institution in Menlo Park.

At Menlo Park's Carpaccio--where everybody feels right at home--patrons are pampered by bravura flavors and expert service

By Christina Waters

A low-slung sanctuary of friendly sophistication, Carpaccio has got its dining act together. Undulating into a series of banquette-lined rooms, the restaurant looks great with its glowing wall sconces and obligatory oversize floral arrangements. But mostly the clientele--lively and plentiful--makes this scene happen. The patrons and freshly prepared Italian recipes are created not to impress, but to satisfy.

In this neighborhood, Carpaccio couldn't succeed without giving good service, but this welcoming trattoria goes the extra distance. For example, thanks to gnarled traffic, we arrived almost 20 minutes late for our reservation. It was not a problem. Our table was waiting and our host was smiling. As our midday feast stretched in length, our waiter came 'round to inform us well in advance that the "kitchen would be closing soon," so that we had ample time to order any final dish, dessert and coffee. From beginning to end, the staff worked with us, gauging our tastes, suggesting dishes that might appeal, extending the kitchen's offer to prepare any available item to our taste, whether it appeared on the menu or not. My companions and I surrendered happily, joining a full house of repeat patrons who, for obvious reasons, return regularly.

From a wine list long on California and Italian vintages--the grappa list is also impressive, for those of you who don't have to think about driving--we chose a big, friendly chianti, Badia A Passignano 1993 ($21), with which we toasted our long-overdue rendezvous.

Ordering food is a far greater ordeal, given the lengthy listing of pizzas, pastas, salads and seafood.

How could I not order the carpaccio ($5.95) in a restaurant named "Carpaccio"? A roasted portobello mushroom dish ($5.75) called out to us, and so did a timballo di salmone affumicato ($6.50), which is just the gorgeous Italian language saying "smoked salmon timbale." During the short interval between wine and appetizers, we swapped exaggerations about the old days and munched chewy sourdough bread dredged in a fruity olive oil.

Ironically, the carpaccio--tasteless and too- thickly-sliced raw beef, served with a pedestrian mustard, minced bermudas, capers and an unworthy hunk of Eureka lemon--was the only dish that didn't delight us on this visit.

But a platter bearing two tumescent portobello caps, and the substantial smoked salmon wrapped in a turban of grilled eggplant, more than made up for the underwhelming beef. Roasted into full flavoring, the fat mushrooms had been lightly brushed with olive oil and herbs, and then placed--juices oozing--atop a bed of tender infant lettuces. The warmth of the mushroom juices coaxed new dimensions out of the greens--it was as good a dish involving this ubiquitous designer fungi as I'd ever sampled.

The glamorous turban of lightly smoked salmon mousse was also enhanced by the grilled, slightly bitter flavor of the eggplant. And that bitterness played counterpoint to the sweetness of a light, well-seasoned tomato sauce encircling the main attraction. A destination appetizer, to be sure.

Discussing entree options with our wait person, we all agreed to share a substantial seafood pasta special, made to order with white sauce and linguine ($13.95). Arriving in time to accompany the last sips of the wine, the dish was admirable not only for the perfect garlic, cream, olive oil and clam sauce, but also the succulent sautéed scallops, whole clams in shells and wonderful prawns topping the dish. Once again, Carpaccio's expert kitchen hit its mark.

Against all odds, we went for desserts of crème brûlée laced with fresh berries, and a hazelnut flan ($4.50 each). My espresso ($1.75) arrived with a perfect lemon peel twist and two tiny biscotti, which pleased me even more than the pudding-like flan that never quite focused into a true hazelnut flavor. The generous portion--all portions at Carpaccio are generous--of crème brûlée, though lacking a firm interior texture, nonetheless tasted dreamy, from the thin, crisp burnt sugar crust to the sweet berries tucked inside. Except for three guys speaking Italian at a table next to the mirror-lined bar, we closed down the restaurant that afternoon, and ended up walking off our wonderful meal wandering the pretty neighborhood just behind Carpaccio.

Address: 1120 Crane, Menlo Park
Phone: 415/322-1211
Cuisine: Italian
Entrees: moderate
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 11:30am-10pm; Fri., 11:30am-10:30pm; Sat., 5-10:30pm; Sun., 5-9pm.

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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