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Photograph by Troy Bayless

Raising the Bar: Nostalgia gets some updated architecture at D'Asaro Trattoria.

Speaking of Italian

D'Asaro spins a new twist on a favorite traditional cuisine

By Aaron Robinson

SCATTERED across the peninsula, the progeny of the Avenir Restaurant Group read like a Zagat backlist: Mistral, A Tavola, Nola, Milagros and Kingfish. So it's no surprise that the group's newest venture, D'Asaro Trattoria, springs fully formed onto the eatery scene, with a polished concept and an already cultivated personality.

That personality is appealing: seasonal, simple, rustic Italian--simplicity that, executive chef Christopher Fernandez emphasizes, "doesn't have to be boring." An open kitchen, ambient lighting and D'Asaro family pictures (the restaurant is named after one of Avenir co-founder Greg St. Claire's family members) introduce a nostalgic dining atmosphere.

My friends and I arrived as a party of four and were ushered down a long, narrow dining room and seated across from the bar. Overhead, a flat-screen TV broadcast the sports channel. From my vantage point, I noticed that the enormous outdoor patio stretched the entire length of the restaurant. While admiring the view, we sampled the bread service, which, unfortunately, doesn't make for a good first impression of the cuisine. The dry leban (wheat sourdough) and powdery Italian country white (similar to ciabatta) accompanied only by a ramekin filled with extra-virgin olive oil and whole olives lacked pizzazz.

When I opened the wine list and began to peruse, I got happier. The wines by the glass offered a wide selection of Italian specialties as well as a couple Californians. Wines by the bottle were divided into mapped-out regions, quoting a brief history and description--altogether fun and educational. Equally intriguing was D'Asaro's cocktail list, which included fresh peach bellinis ($7.00), house-made sangria ($7.50) and a refreshing house specialty, Lime di Vaniglia, made from Stoli Vanil, fresh lime and a splash of something secret ($7.50).

Weary of slightly altered Italian classics, my companions and I were eager to detect which were D'Asaro's more innovative creations. When queried, however, our timid server responded indecisively, so we took the initiative and picked out the Piandina, a wood-fired flatbread with sherried onions, chickpeas and rosemary ($5.95), along with the Insalata Autunnale, which promised pears and pomegranates atop endive, with gorgonzola and walnuts ($7.50). We also ordered pumpkin ravioli ($12.50) and Zuppa del Giorno, a pear and butternut squash purée ($4.95).

Everything was presented quickly and flawlessly. I scooped some of the Piandina's onion jam containing golden raisins and brown sugar onto the hot, crisp and doughy flatbread--delicious. The chickpeas with rosemary were ground into a light hummus, which contrasted nicely with the sweet sherried onions. The Insalata Autunnale worked perfectly as a starter salad, tossed in cider vinaigrette and drizzled lightly with a balsamic reduction.

Next came the ravioli. These pumpkin pie pillows bulged with a surprise ingredient--ground amaretto cookies--and were dressed with crisp sage, diced apples and nutmeg, which turned out to be a truly remarkable combination. A dollop of cream garnished the soup, creating a soft, creamy texture.

Entrees lived up to their descriptions. We sampled the Salmone Arrosto ($16.95), roasted wild salmon in a red wine jus. Served in the skin, it bore a distinct essence of smoke. More impressive were the braised Niman Ranch short ribs (Costine di Manzo Brasate al Vino Rosso, $19.95). Cabernet sauvignon-enhanced braising juices were reduced to a sauce that coated these lush, fork-tender delights. A gnocchi dish, Di Patate con Funghi Slevatici, came with wild mushrooms and leek cream ($15.95) and was notable for being light and tender without retaining water. The cream sauce, chanterelles and oyster mushrooms made this dish intense in flavor without being too heavy.

For dessert, we gave up on innovation and ordered the tiramisu ($5.75), but it turned out to be anything but ordinary. The espresso- and rum-soaked ladyfingers were submerged in a frothy mascarpone cream, which was rich but not weighty. Kissing our fingers, we declared, "We shall return!"

D'Asaro Trattoria
Address: 1041 Middlefield Road, Redwood City
Phone: 650.995.9800
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2:30pm Mon-Fri; dinner 5:30-10pm Mon-Thu, 5:30-11pm; Fri-Sat, 5:30-9pm Sun
Cuisine: Italian
Full bar

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From the November 7-13, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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