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[whitespace] Scala Mia House of Garlic
Christopher Gardner

Tabula Rasa: Fresh linens create a clean slate on which diners can enjoy the Italian delights of Scala Mia.

Scala Mia House of Garlic celebrates its first year of living deliciously

By Andrew X. Pham

SCALA MIA House of Garlic in downtown Menlo Park recently celebrated its one-year anniversary--a major milestone for any restaurant. Our visit came on the heels of that birthday, and judging from the smiling patrons, the restaurant is none the worse for wear. In fact, it appears the operation has found its groove: all details are in place, and the kitchen has enough confidence to offer a long list of specials.

The space is modest, almost cozy, its width but three big steps from one wall to the other. Squiggly fixtures of coppery vines drop down from a marble-stained ceiling to lend much-needed warmth to the formal room. Plaster cherubs chaperone the diners throughout the establishment.

Service was formal and efficient, our waitress missing not a single beat the entire evening; however, because we sported jeans, the stiff-backed maître d' blatantly and unceremoniously deposited us way in the back next to the noisy kitchen. No ambient music graced the garlic-charged air. Given the tight geometry of the place, music might well have interfered with conversation.

Despite its name, the kitchen is not particularly addicted to garlic, using it adeptly in most but not all of its creations. The menu is large, representing all the traditionals that have been mainstays at Bay Area Italian eateries. Appetizers and salads are the best parts, though portions are generally not intended for sharing.

Cozze e vongole ($7.95), for instance, beautifully summed up how shellfish ought to taste. Four large New Zealand mussels and four Manila clams danced in a lemony white wine sauce. The presentation was fetching and photogenic: shells blossoming like petals across which brilliant red tomatoes and deep green basil scattered colors like minute flowers. The golden, buttery sauce, glossed with garlic, ran in rivulets in the tender crevices of the pearly flesh, turning the finger-pliant morsels into irresistible temptations. Once coaxed from their shells, the mussels were as soft as lips.

For a respite, we split an insalata scala mia ($6.95). It was an ample serving of exquisitely fresh spinach brushed with a light olive oil dressing and decorated with white beads of goat cheese. The latter played adeptly against a few circlets of red onion. Orange crescents and tomato moons kept everything in perspective, making the entire ensemble a refreshing interlude.

The chef portrayed the evening's special, salmon risotto ($15), as a mighty platter of creamy Italian arborio. Tidy squares of pink salmon bedecked a golden mound of rice that had been laced with saffron and cooked in chicken stock with mushroom. It exuded a lovely flavor, basic but very earthy. We would have preferred the rice simmered a little longer and garnished for textural relief.

Our veal dish had ample support from very soft polenta and a cluster of ivory and green zucchini grilled to snappy perfection. A side of penne--nicely al dente and tossed in a tomato marinara--bulked up the entree; like most veal dishes, this one emphasized flavors rather than sheer meat volume. A sand-dollar veal quartet, slightly on the tough side, was sautéed and dressed in a toothsome sauce of balsamic vinegar, diced tomatoes, olives and oregano--sharp with vinegar as promised.

As we prepared to move onto the finale, we gasped over the dessert menu: Among the various items priced between $3 and $7, where was the chocolate? The only hint we found was cocoa powder on the tiramisu, which was a practiced rendition of Mascarpone cheese and ladyfingers sodden with espresso and anise flavoring: not sweet, not too rich, very conservative. The Tuscan chestnut pie, on the other hand, was a direct Italian translation of American pecan pie, very sweet and nutty, served a la mode with a tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream or spumoni.

Congratulations to the folks at Scala Mia. We look forward to enjoying consistent performances in the years to come.

Scala Mia House of Garlic

Cuisine: Hearty, garlicky Italian
Ambiance: Dressily casual
Menu: Starters $4-$7, pastas $7-$13, entrees $9-$17
Hours: 11am-10pm daily
Address: 830 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park
Phone: 650/323-3665

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From the May 14-20, 1998 issue of Metro.

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