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[whitespace] Aldo's
Fired Up: Owner and chef, Aldo Maresca, cooks up a savory medley of seafood and chicken dishes along with old standbys like pasta and risotto.

Warming Trend

Italian flavors stand tall at convivial Aldo's

By Joseph Izzo Jr.

WHEN I FIRST HEARD the name Aldo's, I thought of that cafe in Santa Cruz, over by the boat harbor, famous for its fried calamari and fresh-baked focaccia. But the Aldo's at Vasona Station is no relation to the one over the hill. This establishment is named for Aldo Maresca, who used to cook at La Strada in Los Gatos before venturing out on his own.

It was just about a year ago that he took over the restaurant, where the likes of Marabella and Shelly's Seafood once did business. You can't miss it. Just head south on Winchester and you'll run right into it.

So far, reviews have been mixed, ranging from "It's just how I like it" to "I'll never go back." Extreme opinions like these illustrate that Aldo's is in a state of flux. This can bode well for an establishment if transitions move the restaurant along to higher levels and continued progress. At least it's not static.

If first impressions mean anything, Aldo's may be on to something. We found it warm and engaging and felt embraced when we opened the door. At the bar, first-time visitors are welcomed into the fold. People gab endlessly in this convivial space, where we grabbed a stool, had a pint with a plate of tomatoes and mozzarella, and then some prawns with goat cheese, mint and virgin olive oil.

The same kind of community interaction goes on in the dining room. People walk from table to table, leaving their dinner to talk to friends and stop by for a word at the bar. The night we went, the movement felt like a kind of dance that swayed to the vocal stylings of Pasquale Esposito, Aldo's resident singer of classic and modern Italian songs.

Although we didn't like everything we sampled from the main menu, all dishes that came to our table made full commitment to flavor. Garlic and herbs stood tall in everything we tasted. Sauces were rich and thick and full of olive oil, clinging to the plate in resistant pools only bread could remove. The chefs who make this food are a lively bunch and you can watch them work from several vantage points at Aldo's.

The décor is another matter entirely. The blond-on-blond look is repetitive and listless. The travel posters along the far wall just aren't enough to evoke the passion you expect from an Italian restaurant. A splash of red paint would do this place wonders.

Once at our table, we opened with Carpaccio ($7.95), a decent rendering of raw beef sliced tissue-thin and dressed with olive oil, Parmesan, lemon and capers. It's a good one to scoop up with bread and wash down with cold white wine.

The bruschetta ($5.75) too was tasty, a presentation of crusty pieces of toasted bread topped moderately--not overburdened--with a tangy mix of tomatoes, basil and olive oil. All ingredients came together in full complement, achieving a light, refreshing essence that awoke the palate.

Risotto and pasta followed. The first--the risotto special of the night ($17.50)--blended short, fat-grained arborio rice with a mélange of seafood--mostly salmon--in a sauce full of brandy and green onions. The rice was tender enough, but the sauce had a starchy consistency that marred this labor-intensive specialty.

The Penne Campagnola ($13.50) was our favorite. Pasta tubes, cooked tender, were tossed with chicken breast, sun-dried tomatoes, rugola, basil and garlic. It was simple, country-style pasta with full-bodied flavors and healthy ingredients, without rich and overbearing sauces.

Insalata di Radiccio ($6.75) achieved that difficult balance between the bitter of the red chicory and the sweetness of the endive. The dressing, based mainly on good, aged balsamic, solidified this balance so that neither bitter nor sweet dominated. It was simple and refreshing, used at Aldo's to great effect as an intermezzo between pasta and main course. Skilled pacing became apparent at this point. Our waitress was very watchful, and because of this, all dishes arrived at their appropriate times, hot and fresh from the kitchen.

Pollo Ortolano ($17.50) and Gamberi al Vino Blanco ($17.95) both boasted what I perceived as the signature sauce of the kitchen. It's a rich, white wine reduction that had the flavor and body of a sauce based on both butter and olive oil--used in tandem by many great chefs throughout the world. In the chicken dish, the breast luxuriated in this sauce, where its richness was tempered by the tangy properties of artichokes, tomato and fresh herbs. We enjoyed it very much and used bread to soak up the sauce.

The prawn dish did not fare as well. Though this rich wine sauce had all the same characteristics, when applied to the prawns---and there were many--it had a tendency to overwhelm and dominate the shellfish so nicely arranged in rows along the plate. At one point, we pushed the prawns aside and went back to the bread, soaking up the sauce and smacking our lips.

Last, and least satisfying, were our desserts. In fact, they were disappointments all. Everything we ordered arrived at our table in a timely manner--the cannoli, the pistachio gelato, and the peach sorbet. But nothing tasted the way it should have. The pistachio gelato, for example, tasted like Bazooka bubble gum, the peach sorbet like a foamy, sweet tart. The cannolis looked like they should with their hard, crunchy shells and filling of sweetened ricotta, but all that came through was sweet and sweeter.

On balance, what I liked most about Aldo's was its spirit. From the chefs to the servers, everybody seemed enthusiastic and proud to be working there. That's a rare thing to see in this age of corporate dining where everything is micro-measured. Not all entrees were perfected, and some things missed badly, but we could see the potential. As we filed out, we found ourselves singing along with Pasquale Esposito, laughing and waxing hopeful about things to come.


Aldo's
Address:14109 Winchester Blvd., Los Gatos
Phone: 408.374.1808
Hours: Lunch: 11:30am-2:30pm, Mon-Fri; dinner: 5-9pm, Mon-Thu, until 10pm Fri and Sat
Price Range: $7-$18
Cuisine: Italian

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From the September 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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