No pizza needed
Palo Alto's Vero stands out in thicket of Italian kitchens
Italian restaurants in the greater Palo Alto area are as plentiful as apps on an iPhone. From Olive Garden to Quattro at the Four Seasons Hotel, there is no shortage of love for Italian cuisine, be it spaghetti and meatballs or cuisine with a more contemporary flair.
Vero Ristorante Italiano leans towards present-day cooking although the recipes are old-world family treasures. Both Vero's owners, Antonio Cremona and Massimo Chicca, hail from Italy's southern climes. Executive Chef Clyde Griesbach anchors the kitchen with more than 30 years' experience from Hawaii to Italy.
The restaurant emphasizes seasonal, organic and local, with dishes that are simple, straightforward, and well prepared. The menu isn't a laundry list of every conceivable pizza, pasta and veal combination. In fact, there is no pizza. There are a dozen choices for antipasti and a dozen and half pasta, meat and fish options. The focus on fewer dishes allows the kitchen to excel at its work. The homemade feel is as though Griesbach invited me to his house for dinner.
Since I last reviewed Vero five years ago, the interior hasn't changed much. It's intimate, with warm mustardy-wheat colored walls, wood chairs and cheery yellow linen tablecloths. There is a small protected street-side patio for al fresco dining in the warm days to come. Vero, which means "true," is exactly the kind of restaurant found in the chicer neighborhoods of Rome, Milan and Turin.
Service, though, is likely better than at the Italian versions. During my visits, the staff was friendly, knowledgeable, accommodating and prompt. The pacing between courses was perfect and no one attempted to collect dishes until we had both finished our courses.
For starters, six small-plate antipasti were offered — choose any three for $12. We chose all six. The marinated eggplant was meaty and delicate. Marinated anchovies were briny but not overly salty, fresh-tasting and slightly fish-oily. Chilled calamari salad was tender and refreshing. Thinly sliced soppressata salami melted on the tongue. There was a dish of marinated, diced provolone cheese and a plate of big, meaty, Sicilian castelvetrano olives. In all, a terrific symphony of appetizers.
One evening, the soup of the day ($6) was a medley of diced tomatoes, beans, arugula, celery, onions, and carrots in a light tomato vegetable stock. Not as heavy as a minestrone, the soup had flavors that lit up the mouth yet didn't overfill the stomach.
The parmigiana ($9) was egg-battered, thinly sliced eggplant that had been baked with tomato, mozzarella, parmesan and basil. It was just the right amount to tease the appetite without vying with the entree yet to come.
I was particularly fond of the spaghetti carbonara ($14). Hallelujah. It contained no cream, no parsley and no garlic. That's authentic carbonara: just eggs, crisped pancetta and parmesan cheese with a twist or two of black pepper. Though there was no citrus in it, the combination of luscious flavors hinted of Lunario lemons and fresh-ground Tellicherry peppercorns. It could be the best carbonara in town.
The camberoni ($12) were skillet cooked prawns with calabrese hot peppers, garlic, oregano, parsley and lemon. It was a successful combination, with a high flavor profile, and don't worry about the peppers being too hot.
Bucatini all'amatriciana ($15) was guanciale (non-smoked bacon), onion, and white wine blanketed under a lush, slightly piquant tomato sauce. Bucatini are fat hollow spaghetti-like noodles, but more fun to eat.
Tagliatelli al sugo ($15), long flat noodles, came with generous chunks of spicy braised beef sugo and melted-on parmesan. Sugo is simply a long simmering sauce. This dish was a step above any spaghetti with bolognese sauce. Most of the pastas are house-made.
A special one evening was New Zealand black grouper ($26). The thick cut filet had been pan-roasted and served with roasted eggplant, pepper flakes, tomato, onion, garlic and mint. The New Zealand black grouper's meat is firmer than that of halibut but not as firm as sea bass meat. Vero's rendition was moist and delicate, and broke off in big flakes. I don't recall having black grouper before. Usually, we get the more common red grouper, which is milder and sweeter. The fish was delectable.
Grilled skirt steak ($22) is served with an arugula, tomato and red onion salad. I asked to substitute roasted potatoes instead. The steak was perfectly grilled, fork-tender and sliced thin. The golden roasted potatoes that surrounded the meat made a picturesque, and most delicious, presentation.
Vero's wine selection is as compact as the menu, yet it is a well-thought-out wine list. It is about one-quarter California wines, three-quarters Italian. The Italian reds are divided into geographical regions: mostly Sicilian from the south, Tuscan and Umbrian from central Italy, and Piemonte from the north.
The 2005 Valle dell'Acate Nero d'Avola from Sicily ($46) was deep garnet, spicy, young and fruity, and balanced perfectly with the Mediterranean fare. It was just fine with the fish dishes too.
The 2007 Cascina Val del Prete Barbera d'Alba "Serra de Gatti" ($40) was medium-bodied with a crisp black raspberry finish. A good choice with full-flavored meats and pastas.
Desserts did not disappoint. Salame di cioccolato ($7) was rich dark chocolate that had been melted and poured onto a cooling surface, mixed with crumbled butter cookies, and rolled, chilled and sliced. The dessert did indeed resemble chocolate salami.
The panna cotta ($7) was a light, silky, luxurious vanilla custard served with red berry sauce. Crostata di mele ($7.50) was a warm apple tart with that just-out-of-the-oven flakiness, dusted with cinnamon. A scoop of vanilla gelato accompanied the happy finale.
Vero focuses on simple dishes that are made as if chef Griesbach prepared them at home for friends. The ingredients are fresh; flavors are not masked; sauces do not overwhelm; and portions are plentiful. Writing this review has made me hungry. Think I'll grab my iPhone and make a reservation.
530 Bryant St., Palo Alto
Lunch: Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Thursday 5:30-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30-11 p.m.