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Go for the Gusto

Trattoria Buon Gusto
Christopher Gardner

Working With a Net: Buon Gusto matriarch Palma Costa performs pasta magic at her Menlo Park trattoria.

A Menlo Park treasure, Buon Gusto charms with southern Italian style and earthy flavors

By Christina Waters

FOR DOWN-TO-EARTH Italian food pleasure, little rivals an Italian grandmother lovingly at work in the kitchen. Not everyone has such a well-equipped hearth--but fortunately, for those of us who lack the appropriate ancestry, there is Buon Gusto. In the grandma role is Palma Costa, a real Italian grandmother who moves about her kitchen with no-nonsense precision.

Small, packed with maybe a dozen tables and open to its cozy alleyway location, Buon Gusto is clearly a beloved neighborhood fixture. By seven o'clock on any given evening, it's filled with the faithful all chattering away and digging into the full-figured foods of southern Italy.

A Machiavelli Chianti Classico 1991 ($26) is opened swiftly as Steve and I start tucking away the first of two baskets of the excellent focaccia-style bread that Costa bakes, which we dip into a saucer of olive oil fortified by a purée of black olives. Poured into small trattoria tumblers, the wine opens nicely into a seductive partner for the handmade foods to come.

We start, as it appears everyone must here at Buon Gusto, with a disarming house specialty called arancini ($6.95), two crisp globes of saffron-tinged rice that have been stuffed with tomatoes, peas, a bit of ground meat and a nugget of mozzarella and then fried to an unearthly point of lightness and crispness. It is utterly wonderful--and the chianti likes it too.

Steve and I have responded to the warmth of this early fall day by calling for salad and lots of it. I have the Insalata Siciliana ($6.95), a beautiful composition of intensely ripe, peeled tomatoes, arranged around a central tableau of cool potatoes, green beans, onions and some tuna all tossed with capers and a vinaigrette. A gutsy variation on a Niçoise, I remark. Steve just smiles and keeps working on his abundance of baby spinach, Bermuda onions and a crumble of ricotta ($6.50).

Service is warm and moves at a graceful, leisurely pace, keeping time with the kitchen's custom creation of each dish to please each patron. Our server has an ironic sense of humor we find the perfect seasoning to the meal. In short, like everyone around us, we are in Mediterranean heaven, a mere block from El Camino Real.

Conversation and more wine keep us happy--engrossed in swapping tales of romance and travel, actually--until the arrival of our entrées. One glance at my companion's golden, lightly breaded chicken breast ($11.25), topped with crudely chopped prosciutto, a shimmer of lemon juice and lots of parsley, and I revise my old tendency to discount chicken dishes as boring. This is incandescent pollo, prepared by someone who knows how to romance the poultry, to taste the seasonings and then amplify everything just slightly to heighten the effect.

I love my spaghetti with anchovy sauce, huge with marine saltiness, garlic and studded with pine nuts and bread crumbs ($11.95). It's flawless pasta in every respect, and even though I help myself to some of the baby cauliflower florets and potatoes on Steve's plate, I keep returning to this big-shouldered country pasta dish. Until, that is, I can return no more and require at least half of the generous portion to come home with me for tomorrow's lunch.

We finish up with--or are finished up by--an order of tiramisu, which is, as one might anticipate, also perfect ($5.95). It's not overly gooey or creamy--just the right amount of liquor-tinged mascarpone in between layers of genoise. A substantial square, it defines what all the fuss about tiramisu was, and should have been, about.

Life, love, even the approaching millennium all look a whole lot sweeter after our long, luscious dinner at Buon Gusto. Would that there were such a trattoria on every corner. Permanent smiles would appear on everyone's face.

Trattoria Buon Gusto
Phone: 650/328-2778
Address: 651H Oak Grove at Maloney Lane, Menlo Park (around the corner from the Menlo Park Post Office)
Cuisine: Southern Italian, Sicilian specialties
Hours: Dinner Fri.-Sat. 5-10pm and Sun., Tue.-Thu. 5-9pm; lunch Tue.-Fri. 11:30am-2:30pm
Entrees: $11-$17
Chef: Palma Costa and family
Ambiance: Neighborhood trattoria, Cal/Mediterranean

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From the Oct. 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro.

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