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[whitespace] Palermo Sea Me, Feel Me: Palermo, with its colorful collection of Sicilian memorabilia, is a relaxing and rewarding stop on the busy peninsula dining circuit.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Old Country Mediterranean

The sunny flavors of Sicily continue to simmer on the stoves of Palermo, in a cozy corner of downtown Palo Alto

By Christina Waters

THE BACKGROUND MUSIC was perfect--Pavarotti at his peak. The Mediterranean Sea shimmers a deep indigo in color photographs lining the walls. Greco-Roman ruins bake in the sun at the foot of Mount Etna. Festooned with souvenir tea towels and fishing lures, Palermo exists to celebrate the atmosphere of Sicily. Faience pottery climbs to the ceiling, and a white flotilla of tables fills the small dining room. Ambience aside, Katya, Lucy and I were at this longtime Palo Alto landmark to satisfy a craving for flavors authentically Italian. Little rosemary-perfumed rolls, shaped into fragrant ovals, topped a basket of wonderful Italian bread. From an all-Italian wine list, we began with a half carafe ($12) of house Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Vestini that continued the spell cast by this cozy place. I've always loved this corner seat with its view of the entire room and the mesmerizing flames of the rotisserie at the back. Ducks and chickens spun juicily on spits while we recovered from rush-hour traffic with the pleasant Tuscan wine.

Fresh seafood ideas, a rigatoni with meatballs (which was, sadly, unavailable), and a gnocchi with asparagus beckoned from the nightly list of special entrees. But the back of the menu offered specialties of the house. So I decided on a dish of Penne Siracusa ($13.95) involving a garlicky marinara, fresh peas and Italian sausage, liberally dusted with Parmesan. Katya decided on linguine with clams ($13.95) and Lucy ordered an entree of spit-roasted chicken with spinach and rosemary potatoes ($13.95).

When our appetizers arrived, we divided the spoils like Caesar divided Gaul, into three parts. Artichokes Messina ($10.95) proved to be--as I'd hoped--a distinctly countryside dish of tender, fresh baby artichoke hearts that had been simmered to toothsome perfection in a light broth. Unusual and appealing, it avoided any trace of trendiness. We heaped the tiny hearts onto plates of Buffalo Salad ($9.95).

The salad proved to be a toss of lettuces bathed in a delicious balsamic vinaigrette, studded with tomatoes, olives and soft, white buffalo Mozzarella, as well as rolls of marinated eggplant, Provolone and tomatoes. The simple, clear flavors won us over. Waiters whose first language is clearly Italian moved to and fro as the tiny room began to swell with the dinner crowd.

Of our huge entree platters, my penne was the runaway star. A gargantuan portion of flawless pasta, it was drenched in a sweet and spicy tomato sauce packed with garlic and walnut-sized pieces of sausage. Green peas surfaced here and there, and we all shared with relish. I would come back just for this dish. Less winning was Katya's linguine--perfectly cooked al dente--that arrived ringed with plump, sweet clams, but not much else in the way of flavor. The fragrant chicken entree looked great but lacked juiciness, though the sides of garlic-enhanced spinach and fat cubes of potatoes were quite satisfying. All very Old World, and every bite took us faraway from the designer scene a few feet outside the door on University Avenue.

Aside from the rich, rustic penne pasta dish, the best was yet to come. Along with inky, strong cups of espresso, we settled on the classic house desserts of tiramisu ($6), cannoli ($4.50) and spumoni ice cream ($4.50). Each dish looked exactly like something out of a Francis Ford Coppola film. Pastel bands of pale green, white and pink of the classic Neapolitan ice cream brought back childhood memories. It was non-cloying and wonderful. Even better was what we called the "firecracker" cannoli, a central crisp pastry roll so packed with chocolate-studded ricotta cream that it exploded out both ends. Two maraschino cherries completed the authentic effect--and we fought over every bite. Perhaps the biggest dessert surprise was the slab of quivering, freshly made, barely sweet tiramisu--made as this cliched dessert was probably always intended to be made. Layers of simple white cake, mascarpone and powdered chocolate were all spiked with rum. The effect was like a sensual dream. A Sicilian dream.

Address: 452 University Avenue, Palo Alto
Phone: 650.321.9908
Hours: Lunch weekdays 11:30am-2pm; dinner nightly 5-10pm, until 11pm Fri & Sat.
Prices: Inexpensive-moderate
Cuisine: Southern Italian

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From the August 3-9, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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