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Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - April 26, 2013

Two chefs, one kitchen

Brothers share duties at Pompeii in Los Altos, cook as one

by Dale F. Bentson

The clatter of knives and forks etching across plates is all one needs to hear upon entering. All one needs to smell are the heavenly scents of garlic, oregano and baked lasagna wafting throughout the dining room. High hopes, and the promise is quickly fulfilled with attentive service, large delicious portions and a convivial ambiance.

Pompeii's menu does not provoke memories of tiny trattorie in Italy. No octopus, not much seafood at all. No flatbread either, but pizza, good pizza. It's a spaghetti-and-meatballs Italian restaurant, sans red checkered tablecloths, but the food is worthwhile, honest and earnest, in pleasant surroundings.

What's special about Pompeii is that there isn't anything particularly special. No over-the-top decor, no signature dishes, no house-made salumi, gooey burrata, flown-in branzino or just-gathered funghi from the slopes of Vesuvius. Instead, Pompeii emphasizes cozy Italian cuisine that is tasty, fresh and pleasingly aromatic, as if mamma mia herself were cooking in the kitchen.

Not a hidden gem, Pompeii was discovered long ago, and even weeknights without a reservation can be challenging. Many patrons address the waitstaff by name. There are regulars and lots of them. The interior is small, seating about 40. Weather cooperating, which it usually does in Los Altos, the patio nearly doubles capacity.

Owners and brothers Felipe and Gabriel Gutierrez share cooking duties. The self-taught chefs learned the restaurant business working around the Bay in Italian eateries for over a decade, and opened Pompeii in 2007. Almost everything is made in-house including their own dough for bread and pizza.

The menu is chockablock with old standards: antipasti, pastas, pizzas, panini, salads and veal and chicken entrees. In all, a sizable menu for a small kitchen. Yet there are enough common ingredients to allow for a broad bill of fare. In addition, there are a half dozen daily specials, appetizers to desserts.

On a recent visit, the spongy-fresh ciabatta was served with a tempting dipping sauce of roasted eggplant and garlic blended with olive oil and sun dried tomatoes. It was complimentary and easy to overindulge in. Patience had its virtues.

The special appetizer one day was grilled artichokes ($9.50) served with red bell pepper aioli sauce. The sauce was good but unnecessary. The trio of char-grilled baby half artichokes had been drenched in melted butter with a hint of garlic, with the tough outer leaves removed for easy eating. The charred buttery flavor suited the delicate, slightly fibrous thistles. Yes, I licked my fingers.

Carpaccio cipriani ($9.50) had all the tantalizing ingredients: razor-thin slices of tender red beef, capers, a squiggle of house-made mayo, flakes of just-grated Parmesan, diced red onion and lemon. Both sweet and slightly acidic in the mouth, it was the perfect appetite provoker.

The generous portion of spaghetti Bolognese ($11.50) was topped with two tennis-ball-sized meatballs. This was no walk-away-hungry dish. It stuck to the ribs and negated my plan for ordering dessert that evening. The meatballs were made mostly from beef with some pork that amped up the flavor.

Spaghetti carbonara ($12.50) was cheesy, bacon-y and hot, topped with fresh peas and chopped Italian parsley. The sauce was thick enough to coat the pasta without pooling on the plate. The pancetta was just salty enough, and the fresh peas added color without detracting from flavor.

Melanzane parmegiana ($15.50) was sauteed breaded eggplant topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese, served with soft polenta and vegetables. The fruit (in case you've forgotten, eggplant is a fruit of the nightshade family) was fleshy, tender and savory. The cheese was melted into the marinara sauce with no bitterness from the eggplant skin, which had been removed before breading.

Of the many pizza options, the Margherita pizza ($10.50) seemed the most authentically Italian. Although Pompeii's version wasn't what one would find in Naples, the house-made pizza dough topped with olive oil, mozzarella, basil and fresh tomatoes did not leave me wanting for anything — except maybe a quick trip to Napoli.

Veal is high-priced both in supermarkets and restaurants. Happily, the vitello picatta ($17.50) at Pompeii was not extortionate. The veal was sauteed in garlic, lemon butter and caper sauce. The lean meat was milky delicate and subtly flavorful. The generous portion came with soft polenta and sauteed vegetables.

Most of the desserts were made in-house including bread pudding and tiramisu ($6). Light and sweet enough to conclude any dinner.

The wine list consisted of two dozen assorted reds and whites from California and Italy. Prices were in keeping with the tenor of the restaurant, $24-$38, and most were available by the glass. The $10 corkage fee is more than fair if you want to bring along that 40-year-old Biondi-Santi Brunello you've been saving.

Pompeii is the perfect neighborhood Italian spaghetti-and-meatballs restaurant — and I mean that as a compliment. The food is well-prepared, the portions generous, the service spot-on, and the ambiance cozy and inviting.

Pompeii Ristorante

100 State St., Los Altos


Lunch: Weekdays 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Dinner: Weekdays 5-9:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. noon-9 p.m.

Reservations: yes

Credit cards: yes

Parking: city lots

Alcohol: wine and beer

Corkage: $10

Children: yes

Catering: no

Takeout: yes

Outdoor dining: yes

Private parties: no

Noise level: moderate

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent