A classic in need of updating
Ristorante Don Giovanni Cucina Italiana lacks consistency across its menu
==I Editor's note: The temporary closure of the main dining room mentioned in the review was due to a remodeling of the bar, and has reopened since the reviewer's visit to Don Giovanni.==
On a recent, cool spring evening I rushed into Ristorante Don Giovanni Cucina Italiana on Castro Street. I was running embarrassingly late (by my standards), but my friend had texted me and assured me the waiter was taking excellent care of her. I rushed through the front door and into a totally empty restaurant. Stunned, I realized the hum of conversation was coming from next door. I whirled back outside and ducked into the catering hall next door, where apparently everyone, including my buddy, was seated for the evening.
Drafty, noisy, and offering a short trip across the empty restaurant to use the bathrooms, the catering hall is stenciled with names of all the Silicon Valley companies that ostensibly eat here. It is also decorated with a mix of Tuscan and Southwestern decor, with a photo of Marilyn Monroe thrown in. The catering hall is not exactly a quiet or relaxing venue for dinner, but it is eclectic.
The service, however, was attentive and prompt. We had our menus and drinks in hand in no time. This was the first time I had been to an Italian restaurant that didn't serve bread while we studied the menu, but I guess we didn't need it. The menu offers fairly mainstream Italian and Italian-American fare, such as calamari, bruschetta, spaghetti alla Bolognese, as well as some surprises that raised red flags for me: fish and chips and teriyaki steak, for example.
We started with the Antipasto Misto Figaro for two ($15.95), hoping it would have all the excitement of the opera it references. This appetizer sample platter includes bruschetta, grilled zucchini, grilled bell peppers, calamari, fresh mozzarella, roasted eggplant, and salad shrimp, with cocktail and tartar sauces for the shrimp and calamari.
Overall, this was a disappointment. Nothing was seasoned. The mozzarella had no flavor or marinade. The calamari was overcooked, cold, and tasted of oil, and I've always had marinara, not tartar sauce with calamari before. The vegetables were not seasoned, and we really didn't know how the salad shrimp fit into the picture. The bruschetta was OK, but mainly included tomato without basil. For $15.95, it was a wasted opportunity.
The menu is filled with options like chicken parmesan, carpaccio, ossobucco, tiramisu, shrimp Louie, and other items that were mainstays of the 1980s and 1990s. I felt like Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal would be sitting at the table next to us filming "When Harry Met Sally." Clearly, the menu could use some updating. Perhaps not much has changed since the owner, John Akkaya, opened this located in 1997. He also owns Cafe Figaro in Burlingame. I spoke with the manager, Yalchin Helvaci, who confirmed they've had the same chef, Paco Luis, since the restaurant opened, but he said that this has led to a loyal following among the locals and companies alike.
"Seventy-five percent of our customers are regulars because we have been here so long, and they come from Palo Alto and Los Altos, too. We host lots of company meetings and have high customer loyalty and we truly appreciate that," he said.
I decided to choose a simple, classic, mainstream dish, to match the feel I was getting from the menu. My spaghetti alla Bolognese ($13.95) was lacking in meat. There was some, but nothing I could sink my teeth into, and the sauce lacked any flavor of red wine or garlic. I'm not a fan of labeling something on the menu as just "meat." I would advocate for telling your diners what they'll be eating.
My friend fared no better with her choice. She opted for the Penne con Pollo Verdure ($13.95), which features chicken, penne pasta, and vegetables, including broccoli, spinach, bell pepper, carrot and artichoke in a light broth. It sounded wonderful, and she ate quietly for a few minutes until I asked how it was. "It needs something ... white wine," she said.
"And butter maybe. Just a little. Maybe some garlic. More spinach, maybe some nuts even. Anything for flavor. And the pieces are huge."
How bad could it be? I took my fork and sampled a bit and stopped smiling. It tasted like ... nothing. No flavor. Like they had steamed vegetables and chicken in broth and put it on a plate with no seasoning at all.
We pushed our plates aside and asked for the dessert menu. Clearly when all hope is lost, dessert is the thing to do, and Italy has never led us astray in this matter. We studied the menu and ordered a slice of the Blood Orange Mousse Cake Torte ($5.99). How could we go wrong?
It arrived looking sleek and low profile, the sponge cake acting as an almost invisible crust for the mousse. My friend eagerly dove in, was less eager for the second spoonful, and then put her fork down. "It reminds me of cafeteria desserts," she said. I took a bite.
"No. It tastes exactly like a giant orange-flavored Tic Tac." We left dinner hungry and headed off to get some gelato to finish off the evening on a high note.
My lunch visit was much better. We were seated in the main dining room, which was much more pleasant, less drafty, and quieter. The lunch menu was similar to the dinner menu and offered a wide variety. The Insalata Greca ($9.95) was fresh and light with tangy olives, the feta was perfect, and the balsamic dressing was just right. The Gnocchi alla Piemontese ($9.95), a true test of any Italian restaurant, were light and pillowy, and I would definitely order them again.
I can see the appeal of Don Giovanni's. The restaurant is friendly, the service is prompt and efficient, and the menu stays the same, which the regulars clearly appreciate. But if you are looking for innovative cuisine, excellent desserts, or consistent performance across the menu, there are better options (and better values) elsewhere on Castro Street.
Ristorante Don Giovanni Cucina Italiana
235 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Dinner: Monday-Thursday 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday 4 p.m.-11 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Alcohol: Beer, Wine
Outdoor dining: Yes
Party facilities: Yes
Noise level: Fine in main restaurant, Noisy in catering hall
Bathroom cleanliness: Fine