Restaurant Reviews :
A Note in 2006; The previous owners of Vaso Azzurro have sold the restaurant to a new partnership. The previous sous chef is now in charge of the kitchen, with the same menu as before. Many of the same waiters still work there. I hope to post an update soon. - RR
by Robert Rich, January 2003, for MV Voice
When I travel to Northern Italy, I return with such great food memories that I go searching for a local fix. I'm often disappointed by the old American take on Italian food, with its assumption that pasta, heavy cream sauces and overcooked tomatoes dominate a "Mediterranean" diet.
When Vaso Azzuro opened in 1999, I made the mistake of assuming it was just another Americanized hi-end pasta restaurant. Experience happily proved me wrong. The menu featured a handful of meat dishes ("secondi") with slowly crafted reduction sauces. Their flavors reminded me of Milan and Florence, with subtle depth and caramalized compexity.
After returning several times over the last three years, I noticed that the pasta selection began to give way to more of these hearty Northern Italian and Provencal style dishes. Every meal seemed better than the last, as the chef played to his strengths and the restaurant found its groove.
When a chef co-owns a restaurant, the food tends to show a touch of extra pride. Vaso Azzurro grew from the collaboration between chef Metin Demirci and his cousin Gokman Ekmekci, who manages the front. Emmigrating from Turkey, the cousins had worked for their uncle as chef and manager at his Italian-style restaurant in Virginia.
When they left to start their own business, Demirci and Ekmekci travelled for two months to find the right town. They landed in downtown Mountain View, citing its food-friendly culture and vibrant economy. The cousins converted a closed Chinese restaurant to a warm inviting modern design, with tan tile, bevelled glass in wood framed windows, low amber light and antiqued mango colored walls.
I could see Ekmekci's management skills at work on the busy night of our last visit, the restaurant slightly understaffed due to the holidays. He ensured that no table got forgotten. The well-trained waiters collaborated to fill the gaps. Our waiter recited the evening specials forward and backward, explaining each one, and later memorized our order.
While we ordered, a basket of house focaccia arrived with a dish of olive oil blended with toasted garlic, balsamic vinegar, parsley, basil, rosemary and crushed peppers. Bread is my weakness. I tried to resist, but failed.
Vaso Azzurro's menu features a page of antipasti and salads. Prices range from $3.95 for a house salad to $9.95 for oysters on the half shell baked with Roquefort cheese. We started our meal with three antipasti, and paired them with three different wines by the glass.
The carpaccio di tonno ($6.95) featured thin slices of raw ahi tuna covering the platter, sprinkled with chopped arugula, accompanied by capers, lemon wedge, radiccio leaf holding Dijon mustard, and a drizzle of virgin olive oil. The tuna tasted fresh and delicate, pleasantly offset by the arugula's light bitterness.
The ahi paired beautifully with two of our wine choices: La Villa Pinot Grigio ($5/glass), a soft Umbrian white wine with ripe fragrances of peaches and pears, flavors of bright citrus and hints of apricot; and Firesteed Cellars Pinot Noir ($6/glass) from Oregon, with a brambly nose and earthy palate of cherries, black pepper and spices.
The aubergine au gril ($4.95) combined a rustic sautée of eggplant, onions, roasted red peppers, parmesan cheese and fresh tomatoes, spiced with oregano. I prefered the polenta con funghi portobello ($5.95), rich and creamy, with a sinful buttery texture, meaty mushrooms and the salty tang of Gorgonzola and Parmesan cheese.
The polenta came to life with a taste of BV Napa Merlot ($7.50) whose dark perfumes of cherries, chocolate and cinamon balanced its bright oaky finish.
The extensive wine list ranges from low to high, featuring selections by the glass from $5 to $7.50. Bottle prices range from $19 for a light Barbera to $125 for Chateau Lalande Pauillac '93. These well-selected wines represent good values, compared to some other restaurant wine lists. The list also features nine varietals of house wine for an average of $4.50 per glass.
I must confess that I haven't ordered pasta at Vaso Azzurro since the menu added more "secondi." Chef Demirci has chosen to accentuate his excellent sauces, especially the hearty veal stock reduction that graces most of his meat courses. There's plenty here for vegetarians, but protein has come to rule the menu at Vaso Azzurro.
On our last visit I ordered the special osso buco, a slow-cooked veal shank ($18.95). Osso buco literally means "bone with a hole", referring to the gelatinous marrow that sits in the center of the bone. After three to four hours of cooking, this marrow transforms into a decadent pudding that rivals fois gras for richness.
The thick cut of veal crumbled moist off the bone, topped with its braised reduction of tomato, onion, garlic, white and red wine, and vegetable mirepoix (carrots, onion, celery, parsley.) The blend tasted sweet and delicate from slow cooking.
My wife ordered her regular pollo saltimbocca ($13.95), a consistent and flawless layering of pounded chicken breast, prosciutto ham and mozzarella, doused in Demirci's peppered veal madeira souce. Both of our dishes came garnished with mashed potatoes, julienned carrots and green beans, with hints of browned garlic and seared shallots.
Our friend ordered the daily risotto ($17.95), served with tender shrimp, mussels, scallops and finely chopped asparagus, zucchini and sundried tomatoes. A perfume of saffron filled the air when it arrived, one of my favorite smells. The rice felt firm in the mouth, and the asparagus crunched slightly. Risotto easily turns to glue as it sits on the plate. I'm still trying to learn how good restaurants avoid this solidification.
On a previous visit, I savored the agnello al rosmarino con spinaci ($16.95), an intensely flavorful marriage of lamb medallions stuffed with spinach and cheese with shiitake mushrooms and madeira reduction. This became one of my favorite dishes at Vaso Azzurro.
Metin Demirci comes from a family of pastry chefs. His house-made desserts show his pride, all low priced and delectable.
My favorite was the torta di formaggio ($4.50), chocolate cheesecake made like a soufflé. Lighter and less cloyingly sweet than New York style cheesecake, this had a toasted top and fluffy interior. Demirci separately whips egg whites into a stiff foam, then gently folds them into the blend of cream cheese, sugar, egg yolks and grated chocolate. The result rises in the oven, then settles into a light delicacy.
This slice of fluffy cheesecake comes adorned with a dollop of zabaglione sauce, a thick blend of egg, sweetened cream and marsala wine. The same sauce covers fresh berries in the fruitti di bosco zabaglione ($4.50) for those who prefer something a trifle "lighter".
I have also enjoyed the creamy smooth texture of the flan ($4.50), a vanilla custard in thin caramel sauce. The tiramisu ($4.95) uses a traditional slightly dry approach, not as heavily soaked in liqueur as some. The rococo ($4.95) combines strips of vanilla cake layered with housemade chocolate and vanilla ice cream, embedded cherries and a pool of chocolate syrup.
With its large and hearty meals, warm inviting atmosphere and fair prices, Vaso Azzuro has become a true gem on Castro Street. It's a pleasure to discover dining as reliably satisfying as this.