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renzo - palo alto - surprisingly good addition

bbulkow Jun 20, 2010 12:05 PM

As part of the "restaurant roulette", GF and I continually try all the new restaurants on University Ave. The recent spate of openings had us behind by about 6, but now closing the gap. Renzo is in the spot previously held by Rossi & Blanco and Loui Loui Steaks.

They've improved the space a bit, but the general geometry of the room is the same. They're making the most of huge sidewalk doors to open on warm days.

The place was full at 8pm on a Saturday. No reservation required, but every table full. We were vectored into the bar for a few minutes.

Service, overall, was excellent. A step up from just about anywhere casual on University ave, like the place is really overstaffed. Two hostesses. Waiter per about 6 tables. Runners. Waiter watching very carefully. More importantly, a very fast kitchen. After ordering, we had our apps in about 5 minutes. After we finished those, the main came without a beat. The table next to us cleared, another couple sat down and ordered a simple pasta dish, ate quickly and left in about 30 minutes.

The waiter asked our names, introducing himself by name near the end of the meal, as we were winding up, and clearly not in a huge hurry. It's the kind of place where we're likely to be greeted by name if he sees us again. The owner was hovering a bit, didn't introduce himself, and I saw him at one of the sidewalk tables tucking in as we were leaving. Talking italian.

The food - much closer to "red sauce italian" than the other entrants on University. Almost like what's served at University Cafe. The on-table bread is clearly their pizza dough formed into balls, nice and hot. Mussels were not overcooked, and in a simple butter/garlic sauce. Bruchetta wasn't "pokey" (overly crisp) nor soggy, according to GF. For a meat we had Osso bucco, which was covered by a red sauce, served next to risotto. Overall, the portions were kind of small for the price, but, frankly, we're liking not leaving restaurants stuffed.

GF liked it better than I did. Canolli, for example, fully house made and pretty darned good. I was a little down on the Osso Bucco (I like Peninsula Creamery's a lot better, when it's on their special list). Note to Renzo: there's a difference between a souffle and choclate lava cake (warm gooey center). Nothing wrong with that kind of chocolate cake, but don't sell me a souffle and give me cake.

The place is comforting, not high end. That, combined with the speed, means it's likely to get some of our restaurant dollars from time to time. It's good for PA, where people (like us) eat out almost every night. Some times, you just want a quick plate of pasta - the old pasta? niche, but the menu at pasta? is very limited and the service there is slow.

It's not trying to be Serious Italian like La Strada and Osteria. It's succeeding at being casual, unlike Pasta?. It's not huge steam tray portions like Bucca di Beppo.

The bar has received a serious upgrade since Loui Loui Steaks. I wouldn't say it has a cocktail program, but it does have a cocktail list, and they're sporting more high end liquor at a reasonable price. I think their house Manhattan has woodford reserve, for example, not maker's mark. GF had a lemon drop that was reasonably made (but warm). They have a nice munich wheat beer on tap.

Pasta were about $15, meats about $20, major apps (like mussles) around $10. The small pizzas had a thicker crust than I'm expecting for pizza for one.

Far more casual and friendly, Renzo's quickly got a following with parents with kids, older folks. It's not young and hip like Strada up the street, doesn't take itself too seriously.

Peninsula Creamery
900 High St, Palo Alto, CA 94301

Cafe Renzo
473 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

  1. Melanie Wong Jul 21, 2010 11:31 PM

    William and I gave Café Renzo a try a month ago. The sidewalk was crowded with anxious shoppers trying to get a crack at the new iPhone at the Apple Store. We focused on the Sicilian dishes on the menu and also asked our waiter for recommendation.

    We started with the stuffed squid, Totani ripieni. This turned out to be an enormous balloon of Mediterranean calamari stuffed with bread, parsley and garlic and stewed in tomato sauce. $8. The bread inside had the soft and squishy texture of stuffing cooked inside a turkey, but was far less flavorful. It tasted like, bread. Okay, it had some acrid tones from burnt garlic too. I didn’t care for this tomato sauce, much too metallic tasting.

    I was disappointed to learn that Coppola’s wood-burning oven was gone. But our waiter swore up and down that he was Sicilian and that he loved the pizza here. We tried the Pizza alla Norma - Fresh tomato, eggplant, basil, and smoked ricotta cheese, $11. As you can see in the photo, it was cooked way too blonde. The crust was rather bland and limp, barely rising to a bit of crunch on the rim. This had a much better, full flavored tomato component. The eggplant was unevenly cooked with some pieces being overly soft and melting away and others fibrous and underdone. This had the most basil I’ve ever seen on a pizza. The ricotta was interesting, looking like wood shavings or toasted coconut chips. Slightly browned, they were crackly and brittle, adding needed salt to the pizza. Not without flaws, but I’ll have to say that this was a much better pizza than Calafia’s at a similar price point. The pizza does have potential though, if the crust could be cooked more done, and I might be tempted to order pasta alla Norma because the flavors were spot on.

    To add another data point to test out the red sauce cookery here, we also tried Spaghetti ai frutti di mare. This sported mussels, clams, calamari, fish and prawns in garlic tomato sauce. The salmon was too odoriferous and the tomato sauce just OK, but we appreciated the generous amount of plump shellfish. Also the prawns were cooked perfectly and the spaghetti itself was not mush. If I could have this without the salmon in the seafood mix, I might try it again. Portion size was quite generous for the price, and William felt that the higher quality could hold its own against Bucca di Beppo for value.

    Highlight of the meal was dessert. Cannoli, 2 per order, $6, and filled to order. Presented very nicely, the cannoli shells were dark brown, light and crispy. The grainy ricotta filling was sort of goopy and too sweet for me. Yet the feathered dab of sauce on the plate and the orange peel helped to balance out the sugar.

    This was a busier than normal evening due to the Apple release but our server, and especially our busser, kept up the pace. Maybe the kitchen was overwhelmed too, as every dish was a bit off. Prices are a bargain for Palo Alto, which would tempt us to go back when things settle down.

    855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA

    1 Reply
    1. re: Melanie Wong
      512window Jul 22, 2010 12:54 PM

      "Portion size was quite generous for the price, and William felt that the higher quality could hold its own against Bucca di Beppo for value."

      That's damning with faint praise.
      Frutti di mare rarely contains fish, just shellfish. Salmon is over kill.

    2. RWCFoodie Jun 30, 2010 06:01 PM

      Will have to try Cafe Renzo soon, if for no other reason than to try the Sfogliatelle on the brunch/lunch menu - strange that they're not on the regular dessert menu...


      Cafe Renzo
      473 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

      8 Replies
      1. re: RWCFoodie
        mdg Jul 2, 2010 12:16 AM

        Mmm, that's one of the more interesting Italian menus I've seen around here, both the brunch and dinner menus. Definitely a Sicilian / southern regional focus with dishes like sea bass alla ghiotta, baba, and sfogliatelle! Must try soon...


        1. re: mdg
          mdg Jul 16, 2010 10:53 PM

          We made it to Café Renzo today, and it was excellent. We found it a bit more serious than bbulkow did - nothing stuffy, mind you, but they know what they're doing and take pride in it.

          Appetizers were a fine mixed green salad and a lovely sardine e pesto. For mains we had the cioppino (excellent fresh-tasting tomato broth, good seafood) and a superb coniglio in agrodolce - just like in Italy, nothing like any American rendition that I can recall. We actually found the main courses a bit larger than we would have liked; the appetizer sizes were just right.

          Still, we had to try the cannoli for dessert, and that was a wise choice - an adult cannoli with deep, complex flavors and not too much sugar. We needed some dessert wine and didn't see any on either the dessert menu or wine list. They offered us some vin santo and a limoncello "that my mamma makes". Well, mamma knows what she's doing: fresh California lemons make for an altogether more serious and satisfying limoncello than the sweeter (but still fun) concoctions in Sorrento. The vin santo was fine, but the limoncello was really special.

          It's a pretty big place, so they have all sorts of Italian dishes to satisfy a larger number of patrons. But their ancestry and heart is in Sicily and the south, and those harder-to-find southern dishes are a real treasure here.

          Apparently they are staying open until 2:00 am on weekends with live entertainment (which was just about to start as we were leaving). Sounds like Palo Alto will finally have a good place to go after West Bay Opera performances down the street instead of having to trek to Mountain View for someplace open late enough!

          Highly recommended. After so many years of total drought of decent Italian restaurants in Silicon Valley, how nice to have two fine places in the same downtown Palo Alto neighborhood. Vero and Café Renzo both have fine food but their personalities are very different, so they complement each other really well.


          530 Bryant Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301

          Cafe Renzo
          473 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

          1. re: mdg
            bbulkow Jul 17, 2010 12:27 AM

            Great to hear another good report. Hopefully it won't get too crowded.

            Are you saying the *kitchen* is going to be open until 2am? I'd be happy if the kitchen was open till 12 and the bar till 2, or similar. Website claims midnight for weekend dinners. Good news indeed, as SliderBar has ended up disappointing.

            Regarding the desert wines, I felt the same way. They had a short port list (non-vintage) and I ended up with a decent LBV croft. I usually shy away from LBV, but it delighted.

            On a related noted, Bella Luna is shuttered. I had some good meals a few years ago, but 6 months ago it was dreadful. Good riddance.

            I also think Strada is quite decent. Very different from Vero and Renzo, too.

            We tried to get into Evvia on a Tuesday night and there was an hour wait. On a tuesday! We ended up at Junoon and had a great meal. Their 'taste' system for the wine allow a 'build your own flight' which I found delightful. The dishes were excellent, far better than amber and mantra, and unusual. Service missteps abounded, and the restaurant itself needs a refresh (very frayed placemats, for example), but neighter got in the way of a delightful evening.

            530 Bryant Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301

            1. re: bbulkow
              jsaimd Jul 17, 2010 06:56 AM

              Junoon is very funny that way. I too have had some really nice dishes their but their service is dreadful. It turns me off from going there, and I am pretty forgiving of slow service etc. I just always feel like I am a burden eating there...very odd.

              1. re: bbulkow
                mdg Jul 17, 2010 03:21 PM

                They were kind of vague on the kitchen hours. I asked if the kitchen would be open to 2 and got a "if the kitchen isn't open, I can still make you something" response. My guess is they're starting off similar to what you suggest and see where customer demand takes them. Better they get too crowded than not crowded enough! They were doing a nice business last night.

                The food at Strada tasted OK but it didn't taste like Italy to me. Vero and Renzo taste like Italy, and unlike most Italian places in Silicon Valley, they consistently cook better than we do.

                Evvia's always been insanely popular; I never try to go there without a reservation.


          2. re: RWCFoodie
            RWCFoodie Jul 19, 2010 07:02 AM

            Haven't had a chance to try Renzo yet - still hoping to try the sfogliatelle on the brunch/lunch menu.... Wonder if Mama Carmella makes them in house.

            1. re: RWCFoodie
              ssfire Jul 21, 2010 12:31 PM

              I stopped by Cafe Renzo today. They no longer offer the sfogliatelle.

              I tried the cannoli: it's excellent: great shell, great filling taste/texture, not too sweet, and the candied orange peel is a great accent (See photo).

              Cafe Renzo
              473 University Ave, Palo Alto, CA 94301

              1. re: ssfire
                RWCFoodie Jul 22, 2010 08:56 PM

                I knew it sounded too good to be true.... the hunt for the illusive sfogliatelle continues.

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