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Photograph by Charlie Nucci

Sitting Piatti: Spacious seating offers diners a chance to kick back shopworn heels.

Italy Chic

Piatti appeals with robust cooking and simpatico libations--all just around the corner from Bloomingdale's

By Christina Waters

AFTER WORKING our way through Banana Republic, Benetton and most of Macy's last week, Holly and I still had a few items remaining on our gift list, including something sexy to wear on New Year's Eve. But right now we needed a decent dinner and some downtime from the annual shopping pilgrimage to opulent Stanford Shopping Center. Piatti, ablaze with Italian tile work, spacious patio seating and soothing Tuscan tones on walls and ceilings, has long been the perfect spot to cool shopworn heels. Now it's even better with a menu by chef Jeffrey Stout that works its way smartly through Mediterranean classics.

We liked starting with small "piccolo" plates, three for $10, and we chose a lively selection to join with generous pours of a luscious Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva ($9) and a spicy Montevina Zinfandel, Amador County ($5.75). Holly fell for a caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes and hand-pulled fresh mozzarella ($8.50) that was so fragrant and beautiful, dotted with basil oil, it might have been created in a country kitchen near Orvieto.

Piatti could get away with food a lot less beautiful and a lot less expertly crafted. After all, most of the people around us were lugging shopping bags and looking like refugees from an all-night QVC marathon. But it's also true that some of our fellow diners probably owned vacation homes in Tuscany. Piatti knows this and caters to well-tuned palates.

Our energetic waiter--a celebrity composite of Yanni and Don Ameche--was swift bringing the small plates loaded with temptation. On one sat slices of thick prosciutto and wedges of crisp Bosc pear drizzled with basil oil. Another overflowed with a sensational roasted-pork confit, accompanied by a piquant salsa cruda of eggplant, green olives, peppers, tomatoes and balsamic. The richness of the roast pork was perfectly cut by the vinegary salsa.

Only a plate of gnocchi, tepid and rubbery, was disappointing. The caprese was a dream, filled with tiny yellow, green-striped, pink and red heirloom tomatoes, contrasting with one huge central slice of orange tomato. Holly was thrilled by how the tomatoes matched her new Kate Spade purse--the one she bought for her husband to give to her for Christmas.

We were definitely not in some generic food court. Rustic luxury, Holly called it. Piatti provides soothing details like the heavy wooden beams along the ceiling and the handcrafted chairs that offered a surprising degree of ergonomic comfort.

Entrees continued the pampering. One giant oval platter contained half a roast chicken, stuffed with excellent, totally authentic mashed potatoes on a bed of sour chard ($15.95). More of the aromatic basil oil was used to adorn this hearty dish of irresistible flavors. Holly's entree involved a grilled swordfish steak crowning a bed of cippolino onions, tiny red potatoes and huge sun-dried tomatoes ($18.95).

This was all wonderful food, freshly prepared and terrific to look at. I never order chicken in restaurants, but the chance to have a bit of spit-roasted poultry made me change my mind. A happy choice--so succulent. Both of our entrees were excellent, and so generous that we decided to have them wrapped to go home for a post-shopping snack.

But now came a moment of decision. Could we still fit into those satin pants we had our eyes on if we succumbed to one of Piatti's killer desserts? The answer was an immediate "Who cares?!" So we split an order of panna cotta, that stunningly pristine Italian cross between pudding and crème brûlée ($5). It arrived along with slices of warm quince--a sophisticated relative of the pear--a single sprig of fresh mint and a pool of trebbiano wine jelly. To say that it was an inspired creation would not even come close. The effect was surprising and memorable. Piatti had given us aid, comfort and the fuel to look the rest of our holiday shopping in the eye.

Piatti Palo Alto
Address: 2 Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto
Phone: 650.324.9733
Hours: 11am-9pm Sun-Wed, 11am-10pm Thu-Sat
Cuisine: Mediterranean
Price: Moderate
Full bar

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From the November 13-19, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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