August 8-14, 2007

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First Bite

Piazza D'Angelo

By Carey Sweet

How delectable does this appetizer sound: fritto misto composed of squid, tiger prawns, scallops, sea bass, asparagus, broccoli, bell peppers and sage? Can't you just picture yourself nibbling crispy nubbins of all that lightly fried goodness, savoring it long and lovely alongside a great glass of wine and good conversation with a witty partner?

The dish seemed like it would be pretty perfect at Piazza D'Angelo, a Mill Valley favorite for 25 years. Though the place is old, the menu reads like a modern dream in today's rush to rustic Italian cooking (take a gander at this luscious-reading entrée, for example: house-made ravioli stuffed with pear, asparagus, ricotta, truffle and mushroom relish, asparagus sauce, crème fraîche and shaved Asiago). I'd been compelled to come here because executive chef Nicola Nieddu specializes in Sardinian cuisine, which is generally a celebration of true, simple Italian ingredients.

Perhaps something went wrong on the late Sunday afternoon mom and I visited. Bad scheduling perhaps; in that lonely time between the end of brunch and the beginning of dinner service, it seemed all kitchen talent had gone home to take a nap.

So had the supervisors. Our fritto platter ($11.50) never should have made it to table, arriving with none of the promised scallops, a single floret of broccoli charred so black that it crumbled like dust, no sage and ramekins of thoroughly dull tartar and marinara sauces. (What fine restaurant serves such tired condiments these days anyway?) The moist shrimp and sea bass showed potential, even under the odd potato-y batter, but we left most of the dish uneaten.

Mom got the soup du jour ($6.95), a nicely described lentil and vegetable ostensibly composed of herbs, vegetable stock, ham hock and pastina. Prettily arranged, it had no flavor beyond an ample pile of grated cheese atop. A caesar salad ($8.50), minus its promised shaved Parmesan, was just a mound of limp romaine leaves, stale croutons and a thankfully tangy dressing. It didn't help that all three appetizers arrived en masse, unceremoniously crowded on our table with a basket of what was to be the best part of the meal: crusty bread and a dish of excellent, thick olive oil.

The elements of my risotto con tonno ($15) were very nice--crisp peas, tender carnaroli rice, chunks of ahi and niçoise olives--but the only oomph to the garlic-saffron-red pepper vegetable stock was its jarring hot yellow color. Mom's ravioli ($13.25) was better but still snoozy, the thickish pockets stuffed with sweet butternut squash and pine nuts under a buttery tomato-Parmesan-sage sauce. I appreciated the sparing drizzle of balsamic, and the fresh sage leaves atop. (Aha! The sage that had gone missing from the fritto!)

I rarely skip dessert when it's offered, but mom and I simply didn't have it in us to try. We slipped out into the warm Mill Valley sun, then paused to look again at the menu posted at Piazzo's doorway.

"Roasted chicken breast stuffed with fontina, spinach, whole grain mustard and sage," one entrée wooed. "Served with Sardinian fregola, asparagus, shallots, honey, mushrooms and balsamic-honey reduction." Wow, it sure sounded good.

Piazza D'Angelo, 22 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Open for lunch and dinner, daily; brunch, Sunday only. 415.388.2000.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.