When Osteria opened its doors in downtown Palo Alto 20 years ago, regional Italian cuisine was unfamiliar and exciting. Diners reared on stodgy spaghetti and meatballs were delighted by Angelo Piccinini's fresh Tuscan fare.
In succeeding years, the city's dining scene has become increasingly sophisticated and Italian cooking is no longer a rarity. Yet Osteria's star still shines brightly and the 80-seat restaurant is usually packed. It's long been a popular spot for power lunches among the Peninsula's movers and shakers. The secret here is a menu that remains true to Piccinini's roots in Lucca. Only a handful of the offerings have changed over the years, says son Gregorio Piccinini, who now runs the restaurant. The same crew has been working in the kitchen since 1986 and their handmade pastas, bright sauces and deftly cooked veal dishes easily stand the test of time.
Dinner at Osteria is more about enjoying soul-warming food in good company than experiencing the latest culinary sensation in fashionable surroundings. Prices are moderate and there's a nice selection of wines by the glass.
The setting is comfortable and cheerful. The dining room, situated in a ground-floor corner of the art deco Cardinal Hotel, is flooded with light from large windows. Ceilings are high and white walls are hung with splashy abstract paintings. Closely spaced tables are spread with white cloths.
Service is friendly, although perhaps a shade too familiar. My female companion and I felt like we had been caught by the diet police when our waiter questioned whether we were sure we really wanted appetizers, a salad and an entree for dinner. At lunch on another day, the same waiter seemed amazed that we would order an appetizer in addition to salads and pasta.
Such are the hazards of eating for a living.
Pastas are the primary reason to eat at Osteria. The popular capellini and penne are commercial products, but the ravioli, tagliarini, tortellini, pappardelle and gnocchi are all made by hand in house. Spinach pappardelle ($9.75 lunch/ $12.50 dinner), rolled paper-thin, was a marvel, tender and delicate in a fresh-tasting tomato sauce with bits of prosciutto and mushrooms. A variation of the same admirable sauce dressed fluffy polenta with mushrooms ($6 lunch/ $7.50 dinner). An Osteria signature, the basic sauce is bright with both fresh and canned Italian tomatoes, underscored with sage and garlic. With the addition of meat, it became a hearty Bolognese saucing potato gnocchi ($9.25 lunch/$11.75 dinner) that could have been lighter.
Every meal starts with half a loaf of extra sour sourdough from Le Boulanger, wrapped in a white cloth napkin. The bold flavor, while more San Francisco than Florence, is a pleasant change from the milder ciabatta and focaccia that have become common in Italian restaurants in recent years.
Among antipasti, the prosciutto blanketing slices of creditable cantaloupe ($6.50 lunch/ $7.50 dinner) may have been from Parma, but it was dry and lacked the salty character of the best examples. Far better was the pair of artichoke bottoms ($6 lunch/$7.25 dinner), filled with juicy baby shrimp and dressed in a zingy vinaigrette sparked with shallots, garlic, mustard and capers.
The same dressing was drizzled over a log cabin of hearts of palm and roasted red pepper strips ($5 lunch/$6 dinner) and served as a dip for radicchio and endive leaves, arranged on a plate like petals of a flower ($5.50 lunch/$6.50 dinner). A milder olive oil dressing with a touch of balsamic vinegar sparked a generous baby spinach salad ($5.50 lunch/$6.50 dinner) with toasted pine nuts, shaved feta and sliced white mushrooms.
With pasta and a salad, you could leave Osteria feeling well fed. But you would miss the excellent picata di vitello ($11.50 lunch/$16.25 dinner), which reaffirms the virtues of the classic dish. Barely floured and flash cooked in drawn butter, the veal was mild and tender beneath a simple sauce softened with sweet butter and punctuated by lemon and sharp, salty capers. Crisp green beans and garlicky carrots filled out the plate.
Petrale Livornese ($12.50 lunch/$17.25 dinner) is another good choice, the elegant filets of sole lightly breaded and cooked until crisp on the edges but nicely moist and flaky in the center. If there was an excess of the snappy tomato and garlic sauce, it was easily pushed to the side.
For dessert, Osteria gets its pastries from Sugar Butter Flour in Sunnyvale. The lemon and cheese tart ($4.50) is intense and refreshing, but it's eclipsed by the masterful doppio cioccolato ($5.50). Yes, it's a molten chocolate cake, which has become a cliche on dessert menus everywhere. Yet this version is memorable, darkly chocolate and barely sweet with crunchy edges and a center that's warm and fudgy rather than merely underbaked. It's so good you barely register the lackluster scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side.
Osteria knows how to keep diners coming back.
To read more restaurant reviews, go to www.mercurynews.com/aletawatson. Contact Aleta Watson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5032.
247 Hamilton Ave., at Ramona, Palo Alto (408) 328-5700.
The Dish Classic Tuscan dishes, cooked with care, have made this cheerful, comfortable restaurant a popular institution in downtown Palo Alto for two decades. Hand made pasta and bright sauces are the primary draw.
Price range Lunch $8.50-$12.50. Dinner appetizers $7-$7.50, entrees $12.50-$17.25. Corkage fee: $13.
Details Beer and wine.
Pluses Delicate spinach pappardelle in a bright tomato sauce and exemplary veal piccata.
Minuses Dry, dull prosciutto with melon.
Hours Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.
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