No Red-Checkered Tablecloths

Generic Italian-American cuisine is better than it used to be

The red-checkered-tablecloth Eye-talian restaurant is all but obsolete. Most have been redecorated with sponge-painted golden walls and white tablecloths. Bottles of extra-virgin olive oil have replaced Chianti candles on every table. “Italian dressing” has become “herb-flecked vinaigrette.” But the genre lives on.

Red-checkered-tablecloth Italian food has as much claim to “authenticity” as chop suey and moo shoo: hand-me-down recipes from the Old Country that have slowly shed their regional specificity for generic ubiquity in a country that relies on brand names for its cultural landmarks. Pesto is green, marinara is red. Spaghetti carbonara — that’s the one with ham and peas. Generations of Americans raised on pizza and jar-sauce pasta find Italian-American cuisine less foreign-seeming than coq au vin or beef bourguignon.

Which is not to say that it can’t be good, even delicious. On the last week of Hole in the Wall month, I was sent by readers to two small, inexpensive Italian-ish restaurants. Neither fit the ancient but comfortable red-checkered-tablecloth image I had hoped for. In fact, I felt a little betrayed when I wandered into downtown Hayward’s Buon Appetito. The storefront bistro was the right size — twelve to fifteen tables, tiny open kitchen. But the butter-yellow walls reflected a bright, cheery glow, and the gray slate tiles had been scrubbed recently. Prints of Tuscan landscapes and Raphael’s Hallmark-sweet cherubs marked the space as Italian.

All the menu items have Italian titles, which threw me off for a second (should I really visit this place after Hole in the Wall month?) until I began to read the descriptions. All the 2002 Italian-American standards, from Caesar salad (“insalata di cesare”) and fried calamari (“calamaretti fritti”) to grilled chicken (“pollo alla griglia”) with mashed potatoes, were present. Lunchtime entrees ranged from $9 to $12, increasing by only $2 to $4 at dinner.

The chef and co-owner, Martin Oviedo, grew up in Italian restaurants and made his bones at Il Fornaio in San Francisco. He and his partner, Ezequiel Sandoval, opened Buon Appetito in November 1999; its success spurred them to open a second Buon Appetito in Benicia several months ago.

A handful of weekly specials augment the original’s sizable permanent menu. Oviedo’s food offers few surprises — and a few missteps. Example one: the aforementioned insalata di cesare. The more creamy garlic dressing slathered on the cut-up hearts of romaine, the better. No strongly flavored anchovies garnished the leaves, just parmesan shavings. Example two: A thin garnet film of beef carpaccio spread evenly across the bottom of a dinner plate. Its delicate raw-beef flavor and satiny flesh were lost under the inch-thick groundcover of baby arugula, red onion rings, and capers. A squirt of lemon wedge mixed with the extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top livened up the salad.

Soft but chewy veal scaloppine “all’ carciofi” should have been pounded much thinner. But the white wine-butter sauce — which coated, not drowned them — was perfectly balanced between rich and tart, and blended well with sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts. What won me were the side vegetables. Smartly seasoned and sautéed squash and carrots maintained their bite, and small, crispy-edged potatoes had been roasted with rosemary, which gently worked its way into their flesh.

Similarly well seasoned was the mild, lightly creamy tomato sauce that coated the handmade salmon “mezzelune.” But the half-moon-shaped ravioli, housemade and cooked al dente, contained fish whose gaminess overpowered the dish. Most successful was the “ossobuco di agnello,” a lamb shank that arrived leaning twenty degrees short of vertical, mounted on a pillow of polenta. A moment’s work with a fork cleaned the bone of its tear-apart flesh. The simple polenta, with the consistency of a grainy mascarpone, soaked up the meaty tomato-onion-carrot ragú on top.

Buon Appetito is open straight through from lunch until the end of dinner service. Our server, polite but tired, seemed to have worked the entire shift. By 8:30 p.m. we had outlasted all the other diners, and he spent much of his time cleaning up around us, hurrying courses to speed us on our way. We lingered just to try the (surprise!) tiramisu, in which real mascarpone was layered with layers of white cake and sprinkled cocoa powder; a dollop of whipped cream finished it — and us — off.

Orinda’s Portofino Pasta Café is tucked amid a row of cottage-like shops along winding Orinda Way. Like Buon Appetito, the restaurant is brightly lit and sparely decorated: the carpet is gray, the walls stippled white plaster, the tables marble-topped. A huge spray of flowers at the host stand provides the most baroque note.

Again, a “normal” dinner for two friends and I closed out the restaurant shortly after eight. Perhaps because we were among the last to depart, our waitress sweetly mothered us all, checking in with our table frequently and bringing an extra glass of wine. The wine made up for the fact that she misunderstood our request to cancel a salad and actually canceled all three appetizers.

We canceled our salad when we realized that all the entrées except for the pasta salads come with soup or green salad — quite inexpensive for $10 to $14. The menu revolves around pasta. Some are served alone, some with chicken or seafood; all are coated in simple cream- and tomato-based sauces.

The missing appetizers (fresh mozzarella with tomato and basil; sautéed mussels, clams, and calamari in a garlic tomato sauce) disturbed our strategically arranged order, but kept us from eating too much, especially after we immediately drenched a whole loaf of warm, crusty bread in puddles of fruity olive oil. The soup of the day, minestrone, turned out to be a savory tomato-based broth chunky with zucchini, white beans, onions, carrots, and celery. An appetizer salad covered an enormous plate. Pale romaine lettuce was drizzled with too little raspberry vinaigrette and decorated with red onion, tomato wedges, and mushroom slices.

Since we had ordered a seafood appetizer, we passed over the seafood entrées. Two out the three pastas attained an impeccable al dente, and the third overshot it by thirty seconds. The care taken on the angel hair pasta was especially appreciated, especially when it had to stand up to a robust, meaty chicken cacciatora sauce. Sharp green onions and sautéed red and green peppers mixed it up with punchy kalamata olives and sautéed mushrooms in a tomatoey marinara base.

In one of the fusion entrées, chicken dijon, linguine was tossed with cremini mushrooms and slightly tough chicken breast chunks in a bright lemon-mustard cream sauce heavily flecked with dill. The cheeseless and saltless alfredo sauce on a plate of linguine strongly resembled a béchamel, down to the palpable presence of nutmeg. Three lonely spears of blanched asparagus were tangled up in the long noodles.

Our waitress apologized for her error with a scoop of rich mocha ice cream studded with chocolate-covered almonds. We also tried the other dessert, a mild and fluffy tiramisu filled with white cake layered with mascarpone and sprinkles of dark chocolate. Like the rest of our meal, it resembled the original in name and form but not in content. Like the genre it emblematized, faint resemblance was good enough.

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