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Frat Rocks

Christopher Gardner

Zippy Zuppa: Chef Monique Corn showcases a revolving menu of classic Italian cuisine at i Fratelli, including zuppa cioppino, risotto del giorno and fettuccine ai boscaiola.

At Los Altos' i Fratelli, patrons are pampered by classic Italian cuisine

By Andrew X. Pham

There is a new contender on Main Street. i Fratelli, stocked with salvos of talent and know-how, is out to carve its niche in Los Altos' established restaurant row. The hub of i Fratelli is chef Monique Corn, one of i Fratelli's four owners. (It bodes well for the quality of the food and service when the chef is a co-owner.) Corn's training at the sister i Fratelli in San Francisco and previous restaurant experience in Montana make her an intriguing entry in the South Bay restaurant scene.

Airy with a high ceiling and a loft dining space, the room is muted in autumn colors and dark Mediterranean tiles. A formidably large painting, a splash of dark wood, a flash of metal, and rows upon rows of perfectly set tables--linen pressed, glasses sparkling--make an elegant but simple dining statement.

The upscale i Fratelli hums with patrons, bustling battalions of cooks and fast-moving waiters. In the back corner, an open bistro-style kitchen swarms with activity: frying, searing, chopping, whipping and coordinating. When the establishment shifts into full swing during prime dinner hours, the decibel level makes intimacy difficult.

Wine racks, heavy with more than 50 entries, wall the length of the dining room, effectively incurring a thirst in those who gaze upon them. An equal division of Italian and Californian wines graces the menu, including some well-priced notables. We sampled three of the four red wines by the glass. The '94 Straccali Chianti ($3.95), the '92 Kenwood Cabernet Sauvignon ($4.95) and the '94 Ravenswood Merlot ($5.50) show a consistent temperate selection of medium-body wines, neither exciting nor dull. A nice touch is the offering of vino da tavola (table wine) in half-liter carafes ($7.95).

Brief bimonthly menus regularly feature a handful of modest variations on old recipes, as well as a host of traditionals such as risotto, gnocchi and veal dishes. The kitchen does little in elaborate presentations, nouvelle cuisine or rare delicacies, but what it does dish out are good classics, nothing unfamiliar, in hospitable, gargantuan servings.

A first course substantial enough to pass as a main event is the risotto del giorno ($6.50). Rice is, after all, to northern Italy what pasta is to southern Italy. In one such daily special, the soft starch of the arborio fuses seamlessly with mozzarella, wild mushrooms, sage and a pinch of black pepper, crafting the creamy flavor of a classic risotto; the kitchen adds a delightful twist by using grilled chicken.

Equally hearty is the zuppa cioppino ($6.50). A fan of small mussles encircle a trio of luscious scallops in a deep stew of tomato basil studded with baby shrimp. Sweetly aromatic, the thick stock peppers the seafood with poignant notes of fresh basil.

The scaloppine di vitello ai funghi brings forth a bountiful quintet of veal medallions scalloped into submission, mercilessly seared in olive oil and arrayed under a garlic-infused blanket of sautéed tomatoes, onions, and porcini, shiitake and portobello mushrooms. The winning touch here is the the mushrooms--large, unblemished and flavorful.

The accommodating kitchen will substitute, upon request, smoked chicken for grilled pork tenderloin in its fettuccine ai boscaiola ($14.50), to make a hearty, lower-fat entree. Tossed in virgin olive oil and chicken, the pasta blossoms with colors: crimson marinara, yellow and red bell peppers, green asparagus spears and earthy-brown mushrooms. The vegetables and porcini mushrooms are sautéed to perfection, but the pasta appears two minutes beyond al dente.

Sigh. A protracted dessert menu compounded by uncreative presentation always makes a diner feel rushed. The meal's finale here proved inadequate: ubiquitous biscotti or standard tiramisu. Steering clear of the former, we shared a wedge of the latter served too plain on a platter. Lacing the plate with a net of chocolate syrup, a cream rosette, a fresh strawberry and a sprig of mint would have added dimensions to an already fine slice of tiramisu ($4.95).

The staff is friendly, the service warm and fast, the menu always changing, the food generous, the flavors straightforward, the essence hearty. The good things in abundance at i Fratelli will only be further refined with maturity.

i Fratelli
Cuisine: Classic Italian
Ambiance: Informal but not quite casual, upscale, fast and friendly
Prices: $10-$17
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 5-9:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-10pm
Address: 388 Main St., Los Altos
Phone: 415/941-9636

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro

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