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Strong Italian Accent

Spalti Ristorante
Christopher Gardner

Styling Spalti: From carpaccio to polenta, linguine to veal scallopine, all the gastronomic performance pieces of Italy are represented on Spalti Ristorante's menu.

Stylish new Spalti Ristorante underscores the hip cultural scene that is California Avenue, Stanford's evolving cafe community

By Christina Waters

OPEN A LITTLE more than a month, Spalti Ristorante--the latest in a wave of attractive, vivacious Italian dining rooms to hit the South Bay--already appears to have won a strong, local following. Small wonder.

The place is pretty in understated Euro-fashion, with the gauzy light spilling softly from pendant-shaped chandeliers echoing the golden wall treatment. Banquettes line each side of the long central dining area, and a cadre of dark-eyed men with shy smiles and strong Italian accents keep close watch over the tables.

Surveying the list of wines that have been selected with an emphasis on enjoyment--lots of interesting California reds and most wines priced in the $20­$30 range--I unhesitatingly ordered a bottle of the remarkable Kunde Century Vines Zinfandel 1994 ($26). I knew that my dining companion, Corinne--who was still working her way through the holiday rush-hour traffic--would love this old-vine zin, filled with spice and plums, just made for Italian food. And I was right. She loved the wine, and she loved the setting--just enough glamour to set off one's complexion and then on to the business of serious pasta.

From carpaccio to polenta, linguine to veal scallopine, all the gastronomic performance pieces of Italy are represented on the Spalti menu. It manages to be comprehensive, yet uncluttered--like the smart dining room itself. With only the slightest cue, a procession of waiters brought our dishes split into shareable portions.

So far, so good, though we both agreed that the mild-mannered bread, and the extremely light olive oil in which to dip it, could be improved upon. Some focaccia and freshly pressed, deep green extra-virgin oil would be nice.

The prawns sautéed bordelaise-style, in garlic (not enough), olive oil, butter, tomato and white wine were succulent and tasty ($7.95). This appetizer, like our entrées to come, responded favorably to a hit of salt--making it obvious that our chef is a purist in terms of seasonings.

We chased our appetizer with a shared salad whose bold and very balsamic-intensive dressing won our hearts with the first bite ($3.95). Each little lettuce and sprig of frisee had been bathed in the brilliant vinaigrette.

Suddenly the restaurant was absolutely full. People all around us--dressed in that Stanford cross-section of high-tech beige and Donna Karan black--were talking at full stride, laughing, eating, having fun at their new favorite place.

We were becoming entranced by Spalti's smooth act--good wine, sparkling flavors, handsome interior and not a lot of tinkering with a happening thing. So, on to entrées, including my order of grilled lamb chops ($15.95), which the chef had customized for us by actually preparing two of them rare (for me) and the other two medium rare for Corinne.

After a single bite of the plush rosemary- and garlic-perfumed lamb--absolutely on the mark with the zinfandel, which had by now opened into something by Puccini--I wished the lamb chops had been larger. With the lamb came a small wedge of simple (a bit too simple) boiled potatoes and a lavish bouquet of wonderful green beans heightened with parsley and olive oil.

Meanwhile, across the white tablecloth, Corinne was developing a passion for her beautiful agnolotti ($9.95), round raviolis stuffed with an elegant mix of vegetables--some spinach, possibly squash and cheese--all luxuriously sauced with fresh basil, tomatoes (must be some sun-dried tomatoes in here to achieve this level of depth) and a table-side application of freshly grated parmesan. Once I was able to convince her to share, I too fell in love with this powerful argument for the superiority of Italian cooking.

No one could ever accuse us of culinary shyness, we chuckled, literally clearing every trace of food from our plates. Yes, we would have espresso. And with that, hmmmm. I could see Corinne starting to succumb to the tiramisu syndrome, so I seized the moment and ordered a portion of house-made amaretto cheesecake ($4.50). It was a loving creation of creaminess, very rich, tart cheesecake, a thin glaze of chocolate and a heady raspberry purée--lots going on here and all of it delicious. Like this new ristorante called Spalti.

Spalti Ristorante

Cuisine: sensuous Mediterranean classics
Ambiance: casual urban chic
Price: Moderate
Hours: Lunch Mon.­Sat., 11:30am­3pm; dinner Mon.­Thu., 5­10pm; Fri.­Sat., 5­10:30pm; Sun., 4:30­9pm.
Address: 417 California Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 415/327-9390

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From the Dec. 26, 1996 to Jan. 1, 1997 issue of Metro

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