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Cucina Con Brio

Osteria Cucina Toscana
Christopher Gardner

Picture-Perfect Pasta: In the form of servers Traci Spurling and Eddy Midyett, life imitates art at Osteria.

Landmark eatery continues to paint a vibrant landscape of Tuscan flavor

By Christina Waters

THOUGH University Avenue has exploded around it with a voluminous field of bistros, cafes and dining rooms, Osteria has managed to hold its own quite nicely. Beloved of longtime residents for its reliably smart ambiance and faultless pastas, Osteria has essentially been there and done that. Brass, tilework, high ceilings and a few arresting artworks provide the appealing background. Waiters charmingly surly enough for Paris and a lively core of intensely conversational diners complete the effect. This is the Left Bank by way of Florence.

From Osteria's abbreviated wine list--I remembered a longer one in days gone by--we bypassed Chianti Classico and chose a 1995 version of the great Kundé Vineyards Century Vines Zinfandel ($23.50), which while not yet an adult opened into a pleasant companion for the meal to come.

Carpaccio ($5.50) and gambaretti forno ($5) started us off, along with a plush loaf of Italian bread which we consumed with abandon. The carpaccio, draped artistically over every inch of the plate, was punctuated with bits of diced Bermuda onion, lemon wedges, capers and dijon mustard. Our waiter added cracked black pepper and olive oil to our taste, and we spent the next 15 minutes enjoying the appetizer's buttery texture and subtle flavor.

The tiny scallop shell filled with sizzling bay shrimp, not the expected prawns, was less whelming. Olive oil and butter combined awkwardly, so that neither flavor took the reins. The shrimp were, alas, tasteless--nary a trace of garlic.

Our shared Caesar salad ($4.25), on the other hand, was flawless. The exact balance of lemon, olive oil, anchovy and garlic ignited each crisp tear of romaine. The croutons were nice, not outstanding, but they didn't get in the way of the main salad statement. My companion, Troy, paid the salad the ultimate compliment. "It's perfect. Too bad it isn't larger," he grinned, trawling for remaining traces of garlic with a slab of bread.

Lest you imagine that Troy was in danger of starving, let me move along to our Osteria entrées. An enormous platter of gnocchi the size and almost the texture of pink pearl erasers was placed before me, steaming in a tomatoey sauce laced with bits of meat and herbs ($10). I'd ordered the meat sauce and wondered whether a mistake had been made. No matter--it was more than satisfying. If not exactly the pinot noir of gnocchis, it was at least a decent merlot. Less gnocchi on the crowded plate would have made a more interesting statement. Restraint, in the case of rich pasta dishes, is a virtue.

Troy's veal piccata ($12.75) looked like something out of Vanessi's during the North Beach heyday. Tender, flavorful veal had been swiftly sautéed with respect, capers, lemon and a lot of butter. So much butter, in fact, that even Troy complained about the excessive richness. Yeah, yeah, but those first 10 bites were heaven. Summer squash and long, sweet julienned carrots completed the dish.

From the modest listing of finishing touches, we chose something that was to prove one of best things we'd ever had in our mouths.

A chocolate flan spiked with amaretto ($4) arrived with two spoons. It sat on a plate that had been cross-hatched with liquid chocolate. I felt that I was committing a felony with each bite. Elegantly made, richly flavored, it tasted like a sophisticated chocolate pudding--easily the best four dollars I've ever spent.

We didn't speak for long, long minutes. With the rich flavor of chocolate still on our lips, we headed out into the night in search of a cognac.

Osteria Cucina Toscana

Address: 247 Hamilton St., Palo Alto
Phone: 415/328-5700
Hours: Lunch weekdays 11:30am­2pm; dinner Mon.­Sat. from 5pm. Closed Sunday.
Cuisine: Italian
Price: Moderate
Ambiance: Tuscany meets the Left Bank

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From the May 15-21, 1997 issue of Metro

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