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Photograph by Paul Myers

Handling It: Vin Santo is more than up to the challenge of business on Lincoln Avenue.

Guided by Niceness

Simple elegance and earthy ingredients guarantee Vin Santo's Willow Glen longevity

By Aaron Robinson

MODERN culinary innovation can be hard to find in sleepy Willow Glen. Many restaurants have tried, only to discover that Lincoln Avenue is quite comfortable with its simple deli sandwiches and upscale pizza parlors. So when I heard that a stylish little Italian ristorante under the expertise of chef/owner Greg Russi (ex-assistant chef at Paolo's, ex-executive chef at Cafe Primavera) and his wife, Susan, had been flourishing for more than a year, I had to check it out. I can now attest--Vin Santo has what it takes to defeat the odds.

Vin Santo is located below Adobe Hall in a villalike structure with an upper-level veranda. Strewn flowerpots overhang the ledges. Through floor-to-ceiling windows candle flames can be seen dancing in the dimly lighted dining room--an inviting view from the street.

We sat at the marble-topped beer and wine bar sipping the '97 Machiavelli Chianti Classico ($8.50) while waiting to be seated. Already I could sense a good old-fashioned hospitality. We didn't have to wait long before the maitre d' cordially escorted us to our table.

The dining room was beautifully simple--white-clothed tables and hardwood floors. Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper sat before us in little wooden bowls, inviting us to play chef. For a small place, the wine list was extensive, covering a well-chosen variety of labels. The bread service was basic: ciabatta and sourdough.

Our server, Christine, was certainly one of the highlights of the evening, showing genuine interest in our questions and interests. Her enthusiastic descriptions paved the way throughout most of the meal.

A half-order starter of tender sautéed clams and mussels (cozze alla diavola, $8)--presented so generously I had to wonder what a full order looked like--arrived steaming hot with grilled bread for soaking up the savory broth of tomato, garlic, white wine, butter, fish stock and extra virgin olive oil. Next came the insalata caprese ($8). Creamy imported buffalo milk mozzarella blanketed vine-ripe heirloom tomatoes, garnished by a basil sprig, extra-virgin olive oil and sweet 12-year-old balsamic vinegar.

The crostini ($8) came comprised of three slices of grilled sourdough arranged symmetrically on the plate, each adorned with its own distinct combination: caramelized cipollini (wild onions) over a pesto spread, smoked sturgeon with capers and dill cream, and a truffle spread with prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano. The prosciutto was too dry. Though chilled-cooked vegetables commonly populate Italian antipastos, the mushy texture of the cipollinis would have better suited me served hot. The thinly sliced smoked sturgeon draped over mild and airy dill cream, however, aimed to please. Sparing amounts of capers did not overkill, allowing an accurate balance of salt and tang.

When we inquired about the almond-roasted Chilean sea bass (pesce del giorno, $20), Christine's eyes rolled back as she assured us, "It melts in your mouth." In fact, touching it lightly with the fork caused it to separate--it was almost as delicate as the tomato herb buerre blanc that coated it.

My entree was the roasted rack of lamb (carre de agnello, $24): five juicy New Zealand chops basted with homemade tomato paste and toasted anise, then sprinkled with herbed bread crumbs and served atop a pool of veal stock reduction, garlic mashed potatoes and baby squash. By now, I truly understood the chef's passion for earthy aromas, bold sauces and well-seasoned market-fresh meat and produce. This dish embodied all of those factors.

For dessert, we indulged in the chocolate walnut porto terrine with raspberry coulis ($7). Intensely rich and gently brittle, like condensed powder, its bittersweetness paired well with the '98 Guenoc vintage port ($8.50). It is unfortunate that there was too much sediment in the glass.

It's nice to see a restaurant where the service is on a par with the cuisine. From presetting and crumbing to refolding your napkin for you when you leave the table--you can't help but feel spoiled. Vin Santo has brought real style to Lincoln Avenue; let's hope more follow its lead.

Vin Santo Ristorante
Address: 1346 Lincoln Ave., San Jose
Phone: 408.920.2508
Hours: 5:30-9:30pm Tue-Sat; 5:30-10pm Fri-Sat; closed Sun-Mon
Beer and wine only

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From the December 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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