La bella vita

Care and taste abound at Arte Ristorante

From zuppa to pesce, the menu at 3-month-old Arte Ristorante in downtown Palo Alto is easy to scan on one page. The owners, two guys from Sicily, want nothing to be difficult.

Had a hard day? "Forget your stupid boss, your ridiculous employees," co-owner Eduardo D'ignoti advises. Relax, enjoy and feel a little Italian while dining.

For starters, you don't have to ask for bread. Half-inch-thick slices of focaccia arrive warm, having been perfectly toasted so that the inside is still soft. Fresh olive oil accompanies.

Even the wine list, though packed with little-known Italian and boutique wines, is made effortless with the help of enthusiastic servers. And co-owner Mario Alessi, who continues to refine the list, is always there with advice.

At a recent dinner, a beet salad ($15) was a refreshing daily special. Lots of restaurants overcook beets, but this mélange of red and yellow offered just enough tooth resistance, pairing perfectly with pomegranate seeds (both sweet and tart), crisp baby arugula and dabs of mild, creamy goat cheese.

Alessi and D'ignoti worked together at two previous Italian restaurants in this cavernous space at 473 University Ave. Wisely, they brought in Michael Meyer Fine Woodworking to divide it up, so that now there are multiple venues. Each serves a different purpose. Customers can relax in the lounge area with a drink (and not be annoyed by the televisions over the bar), pull up a bar stool (and enjoy soccer without the sound), explore the wine room (always 57 to 58 degrees) and dine casually near the street scene or more privately farther back (with white tablecloths).

Be sure to visit the restrooms. To describe them would be to spoil the effect. Suffice it to say, they glitter.

On the whole, service was excellent. You get the idea that real people are behind this restaurant, and that they care. Sometimes plates were cleared a little too expeditiously, while tablemates were still eating.

A larger lapse occurred when our server listed specials but not prices and, foolishly, we didn't ask. So it was an unhappy surprise when two specials turned out to be much more expensive than other items in their categories. Lobster bisque, though delicious, cost $14. The soup of the day and the minestrone were half that. And the beet salad was $15. OK, you pay for lobster and perhaps for someone else to pry delicate pomegranate seeds from their nests, peel and cook beets and deal with the juicy messes of both.

The server clearly knew the menu, and steered two of us to share spaghetti carbonara ($17) and ossobuco ($27), both terrific and reasonably priced. Portions are generous. A person would have to be very hungry to down both a primo and a secondo in one sitting. Keep in mind that you really want to save room for dolce.

For the carbonara, noodles were cooked just enough to absorb flavors, and the supporting players were evenly spread so that in just about each mouthful you got a chew of pancetta with creamy sauce. Wisps of Parmigiano were sprinkled on top.

Ossobuco had depth of flavor in the incredibly tender veal shank braised in onions, tomatoes, carrots, celery and more.

D'ignoti learned to cook from his grandmother.

"She never trusted the younger generation of women, so she taught me instead," he explained. Among the restaurant's specialties is braciole alla messinese ($22) -- rolled beef scallopini -- which comes Alessi's hometown.

The wine list is a joy, and servers clearly enjoy sharing it. Each varietal list goes in order of price. There are lots of good choices, especially among the voluminous Italian whites, in the $30-$40 range. Then there is a small multi-hundred-to-$1,800 range. With no half-bottles, there could be more selections by the glass. On the other hand, they have invested in a wine dispenser that protects the open bottles and precisely measures the pour.

A glass of Italian Barolo ($20) may be worth the memory. Or, go local with a refreshing aperitif such as Jardesca, produced in Sonoma with eau de vie from Essential Spirits Alambic Distillery in Mountain View ($12).

Desserts include chocolate mousse, chocolate cake, maybe an almond cake. Have the tiramisu ($7). A deep glass of light cake plunged in mascarpone, coffee liqueur and rich chocolate, this tiramisu lives up to its translation: "Carry me up." You walk out happy.

Arte Ristorante

473 University Ave., Palo Alto.



Hours: 11:30 a.m.- 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

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