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Brunello's: high marks for food, ambience, service

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When I sit down in a restaurant and am handed a menu with a long list of entrees, I get nervous.

There have been some notable exceptions, but so often I find that a restaurant that offers more than a dozen or so main entrees on the regular menu executes none of them exceptionally well. In some cases none of the dishes even rises above mediocrity.

A short menu, on the other hand, offers more hope that the chef has mastered each of the dishes, narrowing his or her focus to securing the perfect ingredients and preparing food to be proud of.

Brunello Ristorante Italiano, the new downtown Menlo Park restaurant, appears to be living up to that hope. There's a short list of antipasti, a short list of soups and salads, a short "primi" list of pastas, and a six-item list of "secondi" entrees on the regular menu. And judging from recent dining experiences there, chef Gabriele Astoria takes much pride in the meals he serves Brunello's patrons.

Chef Astoria, who hails from Naples, follows the principles of Italian cooking that I find the most appealing: Use the best, freshest ingredients possible, and prepare the food simply, but with a finesse that allows those ingredients to shine.

An example is his preparation of a traditional Italian dish that I've always considered simplicity itself: minestrone. The broth is delicate but savory, the vegetables seemingly fresh-picked and cooked al dente. Minestrone can so often taste and look like a dreadful mush of whatever old vegetables a restaurant might have on hand at the time. Mr. Astoria's brightly flavored minestrone just might be the best I've ever had.

Brunello opened in late September in the space at 651-H Maloney Lane, near Oak Grove Avenue, formerly occupied by Trattoria Buon Gusto. The attractively renovated restaurant is small, cozy and inviting. Its walls blush with pale, warm color and, along the walls, bench seats are upholstered in a patterned fabric that can make you feel as if you're sitting in a Gustav Klimt painting.

On a recent cold evening, I ordered the zuppa di pesce ($18.95), served in a huge bowl full of a light tomato broth, clams, mussels, scallops and a small filet of salmon, with a small portion of vermicelli noodles in one side of the bowl. It was fragrant and delicious.

My dining companion was equally happy with his entree, pork cutlets in a gorgonzola sauce, which he ordered from the specials menu. The meat was tender and the cheese sauce flavorful, but mild enough not to overwhelm the meat.

We started with caprino con vegetali grigliati ($7.95), an appetizer of grilled vegetables layered with warm goat cheese and served with a basil coulis.

We also split a Cesar salad ($6.95), which our waiter asked the kitchen to plate separately for us.

Both appetizer and salad were excellent.

The creme brulee ($6.50) we split for dessert was creamy in texture and a fitting end to a terrific meal.

I talked up the fish soup so much my friend decided to order it when we went to Brunello for lunch soon after. On the lunch menu, the cost is slightly less, and the entree comes with a salad.

My lunch companion liked her zuppa di pesce, and thought the broth was well-flavored with the essence of the fish, but she would have preferred a fish other than salmon. Also, she noted that the dish was a bit difficult to eat because of the vermicelli in the soup. "I would not want to eat ... this on a first date or a business meal," she warns.

She also praised the green salad, which she found fresh, with just the right amount of oil and balsamic dressing.

The ravioli I ordered ($13.95) were cooked al dente (a rare and welcome event) and were lightly dressed with a delicate cherry tomato and garlic sauce — a simple but satisfying meal.

On two other lunch occasions, I tried the panini, sandwiches made with focaccia-style bread. The panino with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, tomato and olive oil was the standout, with the rich olive oil a lovely complement to the rosemary focaccia.

The panino alla Milanese was also very good, but it was served on thicker, crustier bread, and was a bit difficult to eat. The Milanese includes breaded chicken, sliced tomato, lettuce and a tasty, creamy tomato-based sauce.

A friend was very happy with her chicken panino on rosemary focaccia, which included tomato, lettuce and aioli.

We also found the soup of the day, a pureed garbanzo bean concoction, a true delight.

All panini on the menu are $8.95, except for the vegetarian, which is $7.95.

Brunello changes its dinnertime specials menu every seven to 10 days, according to Fusae Yoshioka-Castelluccio, the gracious manager who greets customers every day. The specials menu typically features five entrees. A recent specials menu offered a range of entrees from sea bass in a caper, olive and light tomato sauce ($21.95), to rack of lamb in rosemary sauce ($19.95), to rigatoni alla amatriciana, pasta with bacon, onion and tomato sauce ($16.95).

Desserts, which include tiramisu, panna cotta and other house-made choices, cost between $6.50 and $6.95, Ms. Yoshioka-Castelluccio said.

The restaurant features Italian wines from various regions, as well as California wines.

In addition to fine, satisfying food, Brunello offers super service, with waiters who are attentive, helpful and accommodating.

Our dinner waiter, after finding out what type of wine we prefer, steered us to an excellent southern Italian red that was one of the least expensive on the menu.

And when, after lunch, I asked if I could have the chocolate truffle gelato in my affogato (a scoop of gelato "drowned" in a shot of espresso) instead of the vanilla listed on the menu, the waiter didn't hesitate to ask the manager (who didn't hesitate to say "si, si"). These folks aim to please, and they succeed — with panache.


INFORMATION: Brunello Ristorante Italiano is at 651-H Maloney Lane, near Oak Grove Avenue, in Menlo Park. It's open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.; closed Monday. Reservations are accepted, and are recommended on weekends. Call 328-2778.

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