Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - August 2, 2013

Weak start, strong finish

Terrone Pizzeria overcomes miscues with delicious, rustic Italian fare

by Dale F. Bentson

My first impression of the Terrone pizzeria-ristorante-bar was awful.

On that initial visit, I ordered the farro calamari ($12) with green onions, bell pepper and parsley, on crostini. The large portion was void of flavor and too dry, and while the toasted baguette added crunch, it didn't add much else. To give it some pop, I squeezed the lemon from my iced tea over the salad.

Then came the quattro stagioni pizza ($17) with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, artichokes, mushrooms and olives. It was a dreadful pizza. Though the imported ham was high-quality, it covered only half the pie. The other half was divided among flavorless canned black olives, bland mushrooms and artichoke hearts that hadn't been properly drained. The 'chokes left a puddle of water atop the pizza that percolated through to the crust, making it soggy. Half the pizza was inedible.

Fortunately, initial impressions aren't always indicative, and Terrone redeemed itself on subsequent visits. After that first experience, the food was pleasant, carefully prepared and encouraging.

Terrone is a derogatory term, referring to southern-Italian farmers. The principals of Terrone Pizzeria all hail from Calabria and Puglia, the toe and heel of Italy and a cradle of outstanding cuisine. Let us not forget that the ever-popular pasta puttanesca literally means "whore's spaghetti." Oh, those Italians.

Franco Campilongo managed the Palo Alto location of Pasta? for eight years while Kristyan D'Angelo ran the kitchen. Franco's cousin Maico Campilongo joined them in the latter days of Pasta? When that operation segued to Figo, the trio incubated then hatched Terrone Pizza in the old Bistro Elan space on South California Avenue in early February.

The interior space underwent a cosmetic revision. Black and white is now the dominant motif with silver framed mirrors and simple sconces sharing wall space. Lighting is minimal but effective. Overall, it's simplicity-chic complete with bare-topped tables. The Bistro Elan vegetable and herb garden out back has been supplanted with more tables, umbrellas and party lights.

On a later visit, eggplant polpette ($10) proved a better appetizer. The eggplant had been shaped into spheres, breaded and deep-fried, then nested in a rich creamy Taleggio truffle cheese sauce. It was a soothing way to whet the appetite.

The house-made cavatelli ($17), a decorative, short, slightly knotted pasta, was aromatic and alluring. Sauced with "beef stew," it was a meatier, bolder version of bolognese sauce, topped with parmesan and chopped herbs.

I tried another pizza. The margherita ($14), with ripe red San Marzano tomatoes, creamy mozzarella, fragrant basil and olive oil, put my mind at ease. It was as mouth-watering as it was artistic. The slightly charred crust was pliable — in that perfect state between cracker-y and doughy.

Terrone's imported, wood-fired, refractory brick Marra Forni pizza oven is capable of temperatures in excess of 900 degrees. Pizzas bake with astounding speed: about 60 seconds. The cheese melts perfectly with the crust, just starting to bubble and blister, Neapolitan-style.

Besides serving appetizers, pastas and pizzas, Terrone offers steak, fish and chicken entrees ($16-$25).

For dessert, the tortino al cioccolato ($8) was a cupcake-sized, medium-dense chocolate cake topped with vanilla gelato. What's not to like? Totally satisfying. However, the panna cotta eclipsed it.

The lemon panna cotta with berries ($8) was an outstanding example of what panna cotta — literally, cooked cream — should be. There are no eggs in panna cotta; it is not a pudding or a curd. It is much lighter and simpler to make, yet most domestic versions are dense custardy affairs.

The Terrone version, feather-light, melted as it hit the tongue, leaving a silky creaminess in the mouth. Deliriously good. Panna cotta is not a filling dessert, but it is lush and wonderful when executed this well.

Wine-wise, I was underwhelmed. The markups were very high for mostly grocery-shelf wines. There were no vintages posted on the menu, either.

Not to belabor the point, but restaurant wine markups are hovering at stratospheric levels, and not just at Terrone either: everywhere. Think about this when you buy wine by the glass. That singular pour is essentially what the restaurant/bar paid for the entire bottle.

As for Terrone's wine assortment, not of much interest. It looked to be a distributor's list rather than a well-thought-out selection of interesting boutique wineries to complement the fare.

Despite the grievances, my overall experience at Terrone Pizza ended up being positive. The food was skillfully prepared; the service was always prompt and efficient; and the ambiance had a good vibe to it — and that panna cotta makes a visit worthwhile.

Terrone Pizzeria

448 South California Ave., Palo Alto

650-847-7577

terronepizza.com

Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Sun. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9 p.m.

Reservations: yes

Credit cards: yes

Parking: city lots

Alcohol: full bar

Corkage: $15

Children: yes

Catering: no

Takeout: yes

Outdoor dining: yes

Private parties: no

Noise level: loud

Bathroom cleanliness: very good

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