By all accounts, the denizens of Alamo have been waiting a long time for a restaurant like Izzy's Place: a restaurant with a destination-worthy pedigree but not so upscale that it has to be relegated solely to special occasions.
Enter Robert Gallo and David Waitrovich, who opened Izzy's Place this fall in the space formerly occupied by The New Ristorante Forli.
There's an almost Vegas-style vibe to the black lacquer bar, with its twinkling bottles, shining mirrors and lighting, which transitions from magenta to lime. The dining spaces have a more subdued and classy feel with shades of vanilla, wood and sea foam. Cushy, inviting booths and banquettes enclose the perimeter, with a glassed-in exhibition kitchen as a focal point.
Gallo and Waitrovich, first-time restaurateurs, brought in Joe Panarello to lead the kitchen. Panarello, whose résumé includes stints with celebrity chefs such as John Sedlar (Los Angeles' Rivera) and David Burke (Panarello helped Burke open his eponymous restaurant in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas), has brought his "simple but sophisticated" philosophy to the establishment.
The menu runs the gamut from ziti with beef Bolognese ($14 for a small, $20 for large) to duck confit with butternut squash chutney and a caramel citrus reduction ($28). A goodly portion of the menu is given over to starters, such as "bordos" or antipasti served on a cutting board. A house-made burrata, for example, was drizzled with pesto; its delicate creamy center got even better as it warmed to room temperature ($17). This shareable starter was served with salty focaccia, leathery sun-dried cherry tomatoes, olives and a selection of house-pickled fennel, golden beets, carrot and haricots verts. The snappy, spicy pickles provided a toothsome foil to the subtle richness of the burrata.
The "primi" menu offers more starters -- rather than pasta, as one would expect -- including crispy octopus with warmed fingerling potato salad ($13), crimini mushroom crudo ($10) and various salads. We tried one of the evening's specials, half a hot Dungeness crab tossed with butter, garlic, rosemary and other herbs. Bits of celery seed imparted a familiar hint of Old Bay flavor. Served with a lemony hollandaise and a glass of rosé, it was a brilliantly conceived pairing ($19). We only wished the kitchen had nailed the execution though, as parts of the thick backfin meat were undercooked; a minute more would have made the difference between sweet and flaky, and translucent and gummy.
Conversely, we wished one of our entrees, king salmon -- served on a tangle of spaghetti squash, with avocado puree and a dollop of tomato fondue -- had been taken off the heat a little sooner. The fish was not overcooked per se, but our server had emphasized twice that it would be served rare to medium-rare; at $28, one expects just that.
Other entree options include bistro steak ($30), roast chicken ($26) and three house-made pasta dishes. True to its name, a Red Pepper Cresto de Gallo with 18-Hour Pork ($14 for a small, $20 for a large) arrived in large, flamboyant fans shaped like cockscombs. The portion was generous, and the thick slices of pork were tender, but it was leaner than we expected and a bit underseasoned.
There were no vegetarian entrees the night we visited, but we found some tempting options among the pizzas. Izzy's Place turns out pies in the Neapolitan style, with thin, crispy and tender crusts. Vegetarians will enjoy the traditional Margherita ($17) as well as a mushroom version ($17), which featured beech mushrooms atop a nicely oozy bed of cheese. The pizza arrived with a pair of kitchen shears -- a surprise, but those crispy-chewy Neapolitan crusts can be difficult to cut. So we happily snipped away and washed down the pie, which was a little on the salty side, with wine.
The highlight of our meal was dessert -- especially the quintet of Mini Ice Cream Cones ($12), which ranged from a very subtle pistachio to a densely delicious sweet potato. Each was crowned with minute, matching toppings and arrived perched atop sweet and shatteringly delicate homemade cones, which reminded us of Pirouline wafers.
We also tried the butterscotch budino ($12), a lovely pudding whose deep brown sugar flavor was heightened with a savory dash of salt. The chocolate torte ($9), topped with stewed fruits such as dried fig and quince, was one of the most decadent we've had in a while.
Overall, the solicitous and thoughtful service, the quality of the ingredients and the handmade provenance of many of the items (including bread, pasta and pickles) makes Izzy's Place a step above your average strip mall Italian joint. But the price point here is perhaps two steps above, with entrees averaging more than $25; at those prices you would expect more polished execution on some of the dishes.
Izzy's Place has taken on an ambitious task. It's tough for a restaurant to be date night-worthy and family-friendly. They have not yet wholly succeeded in bridging the gap between a two-hour fine-dining experience and booster seats, but it's a worthy challenge.
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WHERE: 3160 Danville Blvd., Alamo
CONTACT: 925-820-1711; email@example.com
HOURS: 5-10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and Sundays; 5-11 p.m. Saturdays
VEGETARIAN: Vegetarian pizzas and starter options, occasionally entrees
BEVERAGES: Italian-inspired cocktails, beer, and Italian and California wines by the glass or bottle
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Parking lot
KIDS: Children's menu available
PLUSES: The desserts -- including the mini ice cream cones -- are particularly good.
MINUSES: Spotty execution on some dishes
DATE OPENED: October
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Restaurants are rated on a scale of one to four, with four representing a truly extraordinary experience for that type of restaurant.
$ Most entrees under $10
$$ Most entrees under $20
$$$ Most entrees under $30
$$$$ Most entrees under $40