(Published by South Bay Accent in October, 2014.)
There’s nothing wrong with haute cuisine — and there’s more of it than ever in the region — but what most attracts Bay Area residents is not dressing up, not spending hours at the table and not taking out a bridge loan to pay the bill. Craig and Anne Stoll of the ever-expanding Delfina empire understand this concept better than anyone and their newest Pizzeria Delfina location on downtown Palo Alto’s sizzling new restaurant row on Emerson Street was mobbed from the day it opened in April.
Even though high-end pizzerias seem to be the concept du jour among new restaurants of late, the Palo Alto Delfina soars above the others when it comes to attracting customers. With two Italian restaurants — the original Delfina in San Francisco’s Mission District is as popular as ever — and now their fourth pizzeria, the Stolls have a solid formula involving super-fresh, simple Italian food offered in a very casual environment. The chord it has struck keeps on resonating.
It doesn’t hurt that the Palo Alto location has perhaps the most glorious al fresco dining in town — on a spacious, greenery-bedecked patio that had been the raison d’être of the ho-hum beer joint and before that, the so-so French bistro previously located in this spot. Plus, this is the first Delfina with a full liquor license, so inventive cocktails are also available.
After a rocky start in the service arena, the newest Delfina is now humming along, churning out an always-changing menu that accompanies the Neapolitan-style pizzas with alluring antipasti, delicious veggie dishes, outstanding salads and a quartet of entrees.
Patrons are raving about the cream-gushing burrata starter with arugula and crostini. Another good house dish is chewy, crunchy tripe amped up with lemon, chile oil and salt. Sadly, they tend to run out of the divine special starters, like fork-tender local sand dabs or fried fava beans in the pod. A salad of endive, raddichio and cheese celebrates the colors of the Italian flag.
This is veggie heaven, with a stronger produce focus than other Delfina locations. Salads include must-order standards like the “tricolore” (the red, green and white colors of the Italian flag) in which bitter greens are doused in tart citrus and covered with creamy shaves of cheese. Or order the delicious tuna salad in which not enough pieces of tasty, house-cured albacore are tossed with creamy white beans and watercress. Also worth a spin or two is a lush assemblage of soft, bitter escarole draped with creamy buttermilk dressing, chunks of avocado and crunchy pistachios.
The vegetable extravaganza goes on beyond salads. Eggplant caponata is irresistible, layering the soft eggplant with sweet onions and a touch of tartness. Pray that the fried green beans or spicy cauliflower with garlic, capers and chiles make an appearance on this market-driven menu. And try not to be annoyed as everything ordered is brought to the table at the same time. One doesn’t linger at Delfina, which turns tables like a Formula 1 pit crew.
As one would expect, the 10-inch pizzas are good, featuring thin, blistered crusts and appropriate amounts of fresh toppings. This isn’t Pizza Hut, so those who gravitate toward thick, greasy slabs of pie might not appreciate the crisp, sometimes charred bottoms and interesting toppings like fantastic, house-made fennel sausage. For the rest of us, glom onto iterations like “clam pie,” featuring Cherrystones, cheeses and peperoncini, or the insider’s favorite special, the carbonara, in which a cheesy white sauce, shaves of pepper and farm egg perch on the crust.
Not a pizza freak? Try the ever-popular roast chicken with rosemary or succulent meatballs enrobed with an excellent marinara. It’s a shame more pasta dishes aren’t offered because a recent cannelloni special with fresh wrapping was beyond outstanding. One should also pounce on not-offered-enough seafood specials, like calamari quick-cooked in red wine with tomatoes and a succulent ring of pureed garbanzos.
Portions are on the small side, lowering the guilt level at dessert time. House-made gelato and sorbet deliver the same fresh, mouth-filling flavors Delfina is known for. Lick up deep, dark chocolate or branch out with creative flavors such as apricot-elderflower sorbet or buffalo milk-cherry gelato. The restaurant uses these first-rate concoctions in comfort-food choices like sundaes, root beer floats and an Italian-style ice cream sandwich putting gelato between brioche “buns.”
While the patio is lovely, the long, narrow restaurant — totally revamped from the previous dark beer hall — can be quite noisy. The upgrade went in a recycling direction, using the former beer joint’s bar top as part of a new banquette and fabricating patio tables from old Robert Mondavi wine barrels.
In keeping with the t-shirt-and-jeans dress code is the lack of reservations, which means patrons can expect a delay in seating. The protocol is to be signed in on a chalkboard wall in the front and wait. And wait. The mini-chain’s two San Francisco pizzerias have webcams displaying the waiting list to help provide an online update. Surprisingly, this convenience hasn’t hit the Silicon Valley, where it should be de rigueur.
But in a region where people work the angles, some clever patrons are figuring out the best strategies to lessen the wait. Go on holidays (Delfina seems rarely to close) or go during those normally dead post-lunch, pre-dinner hours, since the restaurant is open all day. Or better yet, call in an order at what has to be the region’s best takeout joint.
Pizzeria Delfina, 651 Emerson St., Palo Alto; (650) 353-2208; http://www.pizzeriadelfina.com/paloalto
HOURS: Daily 11:30 until 10 p.m. No reservations taken.
PRICES: Antipasti: $5.75-10.25; vegetables and salads: $6.50-15; pizza: $10.75-17; entrees: $14-16.75; desserts: $5-7.50.