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[whitespace] Chef Martin Perez
Photograph by Michael Amsler

An Italian feast: Chef Martin Perez prepares lunch at Rossetti's, a Marin County tradition.

Mamma Mía!

Rossetti Italian Restaurant and Deli a great spot for lunch

By Paula Harris

TOO OFTEN workday lunches are reduced to serviceable but questionable forms of nutrition that are far from fun. Consider the dubious-looking shrink-wrapped egg salad sandwich hastily grabbed from the nearest convenience store; the bag of Fritos deposited by the vending machine; or the stick of chewing gum retrieved from some pocket, and you get the sorry picture.

That's why taking time out for a relaxing lunch at the weekend can be such a treat. Less expensive than dinner, and plenty of time to burn those cals. Yes, leisurely lunching has its charms.

Strolling along San Rafael's Fourth Street on a Saturday at noontime amid shoppers, joggers, and a convergence of tight-bodied bicyclists, there are many inviting lunchtime possibilities.

A good one is Rossetti Italian Restaurant and Deli (one of a pair; the original is in San Anselmo), which, though also open for dinner, offers some marvelous midday fare.

Known for its regional Italian specialties, Rossetti is a trattoria-cum-delicatessen that's more functional than romantic, with various counters strewn with colorful bottles of Torani syrup flavorings, wines, and condiments.

But a glowing wood-burning fire and stacks of logs add a rustic warmth, and it's the perfect way to cook up the restaurant's excellent pizzas and focaccia bread.

Diners are seated on the comfy padded banquet running along the length of one wall and pretty metal-backed chairs near the entrance and window. The deli ambiance is further softened by small hanging lamps, purple and green-painted ceilings, mosaic-type art on the walls, and fresh flowers peeping out of miniature straw-bottomed chianti wine bottles on each table.

One lunch specialty here is the "Focacce," grilled pizza-bread sandwiches filled with a variety of tasty combos like grilled chicken and roasted vegetables ($7.95), or prosciutto with smoked mozzarella and fresh tomatoes ($8.50).

We get to sample this treat when the server brings us a helping of puffy, warm, and cheesy strips of focaccia bread.

The appetizers are great. The Swiss chard ($5.95) is steamed and served cool. This luscious starter tastes of pure goodness. It's decorated with pieces of red onion and lemon slices and bathed in a stellar olive oil.

The caprese ($7.95) is a satisfying opener. Slabs of chalky-white mozzarella cheese are interspersed with fresh sweet organic tomato slices flecked with fresh basil, and the whole dish is rendered meaty by slices of piquant black olives and more olive oil.

The downside is the service. Although prompt and pleasant, our waiter had absolutely no knowledge to impart to his customers. Could he recommend a red wine? He didn't know. Are the pastas made here? He didn't know. Are the desserts made in-house? He didn't know. While it may be difficult to keep track of a constant turnover of wait staff, training should be crucial.

Turns out the pasta is made in-house. The trenette al funghi ($7.75) is a lusty pasta dish of homemade small fettuccini with mushrooms sautéed in olive oil, garlic, capers, and fresh tomatoes--very good.

Also recommended is the pollo marsala ($9.95), a chicken breast with the lush almost sweet flavor of Marsala wine tempered by slivers of earthy mushrooms in the sauce, plus onions and capers. They made very good use of capers here, knowing that several of these flavor bombs go a long way. This dish comes with a portion of small boiled potatoes and a medley of mixed vegetables.

Certain desserts are also made in-house, but on the proprietor's recommendation we split a coconut sorbeto ($4.25), a lovely refreshing coconut sorbet flown in from Milan. It's swirled with caramel and cream and served in a coconut shell. The whole delight is infused with the nutty flavor and fibrous texture of coconut meat. Yum.

If you can handle wine with your lunch without zonking out, Rossetti has a good list featuring fairly inexpensive Italian wines--most run from $23 to $28 a bottle.

Rossetti Italian Restaurant and Deli
909 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/258-9555.
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Food: Italian
Service: Wait staff needs training
Ambiance: Cozy trattoria-deli
Price: Moderate
Wine list: Inexpensive and varied selection, almost all Italian
Overall: 3 stars (out of 4)

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From the September 27-October 3, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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