Meatballs at Howie’s Artisan Pizzeria in Palo Alto.
Howard Bulka is one of those chefs who will get fixated on something, then research and tweak it to death until it’s just right.
Such was the case when he decided to trade decades of preparing fancy, fine-dining, prixe-fixe menus for pizza instead.
Howie’s Artisan Pizza opened in Palo Alto’s Town & Country Village four years ago. Crowds have been lining up ever since for the pizzas, constructed with a bread flour-dough, which takes two days to mix and proof before being turned into pies that are baked in a gas-fired brick oven at 600 degrees for 5-6 minutes.
These are multi-dimensional crusts with puffy edges of air holes that provide chew and crunch, and centers that get thinner and crisper.
The whimsical art work on the walls.
The dining room.
Recently, I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant. We started with the Chinese Chicken Salad ($10). The generous-sized salad is more than enough for two to share. A mountain of chopped romaine is tossed with cucumber, green onions, peanuts, cilantro, chicken chunks, crispy won ton strips and a creamy, mustardy dressing. It’s almost like an Asian version of a chopped salad.
Huckleberry sorbetto at Campo 185.
Months ago on a lark, just because I happened to be wandering through downtown Palo Alto on a chilly afternoon, I stopped into Campo Pizzeria to grab something warm for lunch.
At the time, the name of the restaurant included the word “pizzeria.” Back then, the kitchen was also headed up by Chef Sean O’Brien, formerly of Myth, Gary Danko and Zinnia, all in San Francisco. I remember the pizzetta dough as quite crisp and the cup of minestrone truly impressive in the way it maintained the integrity of each and every vegetable.
Fast forward to earlier this month, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant. Now christened Campo 185, in reference to its address on University Avenue, the “pizzeria” moniker had been jettisoned, though pizzas are still on the menu. What’s more, a new chef now runs the place — Robert Holt, former executive chef of Marzano in Oakland.
As the saying goes: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the case of San Francisco’s A16, that’s a very good thing. The restaurant, which specializes in the cuisine of Campania, has weathered quite a few chef changes over its eight years. But you’d never know it. The narrow restaurant is always packed. And the food is consistently stellar, especially the pizzas and pastas.
That was the case on my most recent visit there last month, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant.
Executive Chef Christopher Thompson took over the helm earlier this summer. He also journeyed to Naples this year, where he became a certified pizzaiolo in Neapolitan-style pizza.
Of course, we had to have one of those pies. We opted for the Margherita ($15) with tomato, mozzarella, Grana Padano, basil and a splash of olive oil. The blistered crust was crisp, even holding up well enough in the center to the milky mozzarella that had melted delightfully to become one with the sweet tomato sauce. You can tell the sign of a great crust in that it should have a developed flavor all on its own. This one does. It also had plentiful air bubbles to create a wonderful chewy texture in parts.
You gotta love a restaurant that offers you a perfectly crisp and light Belgium waffle with Nutella sauce — at the end of dinner.
That’s one of the joys of the new Portola Kitchen, which opened last month up in the tree-lined hills of Portola Valley.
It’s in the old Mike’s Cafe building in the Ladera Shopping Center, a little oasis of eating and shopping, where you’ll also find the wonderful Bianchi’s Market, an Old Port Lobster Shack, and the well-stocked Ladera Garden Center.
The restaurant space has been given a total redo with a rustic, warm vibe. Banquette dividers are constructed of unfinished wood. The bare wood tables, fashioned from old barn siding, still have grooves and knots in them to add character. Even the soaring beamed ceiling is reminiscent of an old barn. There’s a long bar with TVs, an open kitchen, and seating outside to take advantage of the temperate summer evenings.
Chef Guillaume Bienaime is the latest in a long line of fine-dining chefs to go more casual these days. He last headed the kitchen at the well-regarded, white-tablecloth Marche in Menlo Park.
At Portola Kitchen, he creates a menu friendly on the pocket and a variety of appetites. All the pastas are made in-house, as is the sausage. The wine list is half Californian and half Italian. There also are wines on tap to enjoy by the glass.
Redd Wood is one of those restaurants that could easily qualify as your favorite neighborhood joint.
With a cosmopolitan, masculine-chic vibe, plus affordable pizzas and pastas done superbly, it’s the kind of place you can comfortably return to again and again.
Now, if only I could afford to live in Yountville — well, then I’d be all set.
Barring that, at least I was fortunate enough to be invited recently to dine as a guest for lunch at Chef Richard Reddington’s newest restaurant. His first, of course, is the Michelin-starred Redd, a much tonier establishment just a stroll away in downtown Yountville.
So many Napa Valley restaurants sport a Mediterranean look. Redd Wood has none of that. Instead, it looks like a trendy New York restaurant, with its black leather tufted booths, train station clock, marble general’s desk turned service station, and striking ship’s buoy that’s been dipped in bronze and refashioned as a light fixture.