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Viaggio Vivace

[whitespace] Viaggio Ristorante Mediterraneo
Christopher Gardner

Culinary Tour Guide: From his restaurant on Big Basin Way, Viaggio executive chef A.J. Szenda cruises through various Mediterranean hot spots.

A.J. Szenda's menu charms with a Mediterranean accent and miles of style

By Christina Waters

ALFRESCO or otherwise, Viaggio makes a hit in the midst of Saratoga's well-crafted restaurant gold coast. It was a warm evening when Jack and I took our rattan seats at a table on the brick terrace. French doors open onto this side area, nestled under vibrant blue umbrellas. Strategically placed palms in stone urns divide this patio into private dining islands. Very Aix, I thought. Or Positano, Jack suggested. Well, Mediterranean to the max, however you slice it geographically. From smart service to disarmingly delicious dishes, our meal was flawless from start to finish.

"A great alternative to those little bowls of olive oil," Jack murmured approvingly, as he topped a slice of walnut-laced bread with excellent tapenade. He loved his glass of Fontana Candida Pinot Grigio ($5), chilled and citrusy, while I admired the fullness of a Moshin Vineyard Russian River Pinot Noir 1995 ($7.25). Goblets of Solé water bubbled softly as the lowering sun turned everything a shade of gold.

An appetizer tapas platter ($12.95) knocked us out with its pretty but completely unfussy display of colors, textures and intense flavors. A cool salad of baby limas and ham bordered marinated shiitake mushrooms on a bundle of infant lettuce. Bits of spicy beef were skewered along with slices of eggplant that opened to reveal a tomato and pepper puree. Everything invited enjoyment, but it was a cool vinaigrette of baby scallops, rock shrimp and tender calamari--piled high with capers--that won me over most. The entire platter was ablaze with fresh seasonal ideas, the sort of thing that has fueled chef A.J. Szenda's reputation.

"This is a very intelligent dish," Jack noted, finishing up the last ribbon of roasted yellow bell pepper. "I'm completely won over by it." I agreed, happy to find such a resounding orchestration of flavors in a single dish. And we both felt the same about a tureen filled with a chilled, tart gazpacho ($5). Laced with a dice of cucumbers and topped with perfect garlic croutons and chopped cilantro, it had obviously been prepared with expertise. It was far from the afterthought that most restaurant soups tend to be. What fun--and what a relief--to discover food that is sensually smart, that tries to appeal to us yet not outsmart us.

Jack's entree--slices of lean veal scallop ($18.95) done up in classic piccata fashion, with lemon and capers--was amplified by impeccable asparagus and carrots as well as an herb-driven rice pilaf. But my halibut ($19.95) was the star of the dinner,--a thick alabaster filet in an aromatic lobster broth. The sauce was given further luster by a top note of fresh tarragon, and the filet was filled with tiny diced tomatoes, rice and corn. Alternately crunchy, sweet and tart, it tasted like a summer harvest.

Dessert selection was difficult, but finally we zeroed in on a honeydew sorbet ($4.95), beautifully shaped into green ovoids arranged on a flowered plate with blueberries, strawberries and mint.

My torta di noci went especially well with espresso; it involved two slices of a rich walnut-currant pound cake crisscrossed with a ribbon of caramel sauce ($5.95). Not too sweet, it was irresistible--as was our entire experience at Viaggio, a superb dining journey in any language.

Viaggio Ristorante Mediterraneo
Address: 14550 Big Basin Way, Saratoga
Phone: 408/741-5300
Cuisine: West Coast Mediterranean
Hours: Lunch Tue.-Sun. 11:30am-2pm; Sun. brunch 11am-2:30pm; dinner nightly 5-10pm
Chef: A.J. Szenda

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From the August 27-September 2, 1998 issue of Metro.

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