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February 01, 2006

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Publication Date: Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Food & Drink: A slice of Sicily -- Palermo in Menlo Center is a welcome addition to the restaurant scene Food & Drink: A slice of Sicily -- Palermo in Menlo Center is a welcome addition to the restaurant scene (February 01, 2006)

By Jane Knoerle

Almanac Lifestyles Editor

Menlo Park diners are a savvy bunch. Although Palermo Italian restaurant opened late last year in Menlo Center with little fanfare, on a Saturday night a week after New Year's Day the place was packed with a lively crowd.

The bartender was busy pouring cosmopolitans and martinis at the attractive little bar and waiters scurried about with platters of Italian food.

Since we had no reservations, the hostess squeezed us into a tiny space by the window. Palermo is a small restaurant, seating about 100. But the patio, where there are 11 tables, was a little chilly for January dining, even with heat lamps.

Palermo's menu includes food from all over Italy, including Sicily, owner Renato Cusimano's native land. Looking for the Sicilian connection, I ordered the Siciliana salad: mixed greens with oranges, olives, shaved red onions and white anchovies ($7.95). It had a nice piquancy, brought out by the sweet orange.

There are five dishes prepared with house-made pasta. I ordered the crab ravioli with creamy tomatoes in a vodka sauce ($15.95). It was so rich I could eat only about half of it. My dinner partner ordered spaghetti alle vongole: fresh clams in a white wine sauce ($15.95). She finished every bite, using a crust of French bread to soak up the good sauce.

On a second visit on a week night, we were smart enough to make reservations.

As executive chef, Mr. Cusimano has created a menu with 18 hot or cold antipasti dishes for those who prefer "small plate" dining. Eggplant parmigiana ($9.75) was fresh-tasting with a bright tomato sauce and melting mozzarella cheese. The portion was large enough to serve as an entree.

Some of the other hot antipasti choices were broiled asparagus topped with cheese and butter, grilled calamari with white bean salad, and sauteed spinach with garlic.

The cold dishes, such as tomatoes with white anchovies, bruschetta, caprese salad of tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, fried peppers, carpaccio of fish, and eggplant salad, are typical of the buffet tables laden with antipasti you find in restaurants in Italy. There you take a plate, and for a set price, help yourself.

The others in our party opted for regular entrees, or "secondi." In Italy pasta is considered the first course. Meat or fish is ordered for the second course. The sea bass, buttery fish sauteed and served with a marinara sauce, potatoes and spinach ($23.95), was fabulous.

Veal Milanese with diced tomatoes, olives and capers ($23.95) seemed a little dry and overdone.

The small restaurant is much quieter at lunch and, of course, the prices are lower. The lunch menu emphasizes panini, sandwiches made with small rolls. There are several choices, including prosciutto, provolone, tomatoes and grilled eggplant ($9.50); and grilled chicken with roasted peppers, arugula and tomato ($9.95). The chicken needed more seasoning, but the vegetables tasted fresh and the country bread was good.

Next time I want to try the sausage, bell pepper and onion panino ($8.95). The sandwiches are hearty and come with a house salad.

My friend ordered the baby spinach salad with gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and pear ($9.75). It comes with a very generous hunk of luscious gorgonzola.

Desserts feature house-made Sicilian favorites, such as cassata and cannoli, tiramisu, panna cotta flavored with Grand Marnier, gelato and Italian fruit sorbets. Limoncello sorbet sounds perfect after a heavy meal.

Service on each occasion was smooth and professional. The waiters were equal to those you find in San Francisco's better restaurants: solicitous, but not intrusive.

Palermo is owned by Renato and Diane Cusimano of Atherton. Mr. Cusimano said he and his wife were happy to open a restaurant close to home. They owned Palermo restaurant in San Jose for 18 years before selling it last year. They also owned Palermo restaurant in Palo Alto, but sold it in 1993.

Palermo in San Jose was a large restaurant, catering to a Silicon Valley clientele. Mr. Cusimano said he enjoys running a smaller place.

Mr. Cusimano grew up in the restaurant business. A native of Palermo, Sicily's seaport capital, he moved with his family to the United States about 27 years ago. The family had two restaurants in New York City, both on Mulberry Street in the heart of Little Italy.

While Menlo Park has plenty of Italian restaurants, locals love to eat out and check out "the latest." Palermo is a welcome addition to the restaurant scene.

Palermo is on the north side of Menlo Center, just around the corner from Cafe Borrone and Kepler's, facing Santa Cruz Avenue at 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Telephone: 322-2157.

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