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[whitespace] Niebaum-Coppola
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Fast-Paced: Blurring the line between entertainment and fine dining, the peninsula's Niebaum-Coppola falls short on both fronts, in this reviewer's experience.

Apocalypse Yow!

An Italian-American director's answer to Planet Hollywood, Niebaum-Coppola gives Palo Alto a genuine tourist mecca

By Christina Waters

MAKING US an offer he thinks we can't refuse, the great director and his Niebaum-Coppola partners have gambled that what's good for Napa is good for Palo Alto. The grandiose new brasserie-cum-trading post on University Avenue lures incoming diners with glittering tableaux of Coppola paraphernalia, and lines the back walls with yet more acreage of wines, accessories, condiments, tablewares, you name it. And in between there's a big, brash behemoth of a bistro that sells lots of Niebaum-Coppola wine and serves Italian-American food, presumably, like Nona Coppola used to make.

I like Niebaum-Coppola wines and I was looking forward to enjoying the food. But after the dinner we sampled last week, let's just say that I'm betting Don Coppola won't get much respect. Except by out-of-towners.

Palo Alto is one of the top dining destinations in an area famous for great dining. So what was the kitchen thinking serving oversalted, soggy spinach, tough, grey pork chops and a pizza disguised as a field of arugula? Okay, let's slow down the videotape.

Prepared to be impressed, we entered what appeared to be a generic theme restaurant (Mediterranean IHOP?) designed by a hotel chain (with comfortable red banquettes). Despite the high ceilings, costly mosaic floors, wood veneers and long zinc-top bar, the place looks cheap and thrown together. The wait staff suffers a similar fate it seems. Our poor waiter had no idea what a flight was, and when we ordered the costly Syrah quartet ($22.50/1-ounce pours), he brought out one prepoured glass. After a wait, he finally managed to bring all four glasses--and the bottles--and poured amounts ranging from a half inch of the Zaca Mesa I was so looking forward to, to more than one-and-a-half inches for the excellent Turnbull. I had also ordered a glass of the Coppola Diamond Series Zinfandel '98 ($7), an excellent wine that almost salvaged a muddled menagerie of dishes.

Peter bravely tackled his tough pork chops--the roast potatoes on the side were quite good, though the green beans had been around for days. Frank's appetizer order of highly touted Mammarella Mozzarella ($8.75) was a layering of moist, tasteless mozzarella balls, unripe tomato slices and fresh basil. He was crushed.

The pizza Sofia, named for the director's daughter, offered a reasonably crisp, well-made crust covered with gummy prosciutto as thick as Canadian bacon and handfuls of acrid arugula ($11). What city were we in? We all yelled, struggling to be heard in what must be the loudest dining room on the peninsula--any peninsula. A contract should be taken out on the player piano incessantly banging out Italian folk Muzak. Even our waiter could barely hear our orders--an order of Vin Santo never materialized. Jack returned from the men's room with the news that above the urinals Napa Valley winery maps were on sale, for a mere $12.95 a pop. Niebaum-Coppola could be a sound-stage version of a real restaurant--a colorful collection of clichés about what Italian dining might look and feel like. But it's only make believe. Funicoli, funicola.

After a meal only a tourist could swallow, we hoped for some nice dessert and espresso. Orders were placed for cannoli ($4.75), the mixed chocolate and vanilla gelati ($3.75) and a chocolate tartufo ($3.75). Accompanied by bitter espresso, the desserts were suitable for a child's birthday party. Huge scoops of "gelati" tasted like ice cream. No tight texture, no fine grain, no sophistication in the flavor. Ditto the chocolate ice cream rolled in chocolate syrup, a.k.a. tartufo. A law needs to be passed banning the cannoli. Imagine library paste laced with huge blocks of candied fruit, stuffed into a thick, hard pastry roll. What is the management thinking? That people in Palo Alto are rubes who won't mind paying for mediocre food as long as they can pick up a few Coppola souvenirs?

Address: 473 University Ave., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.752.0350
Hours: 11am-11pm daily
Cuisine: Italian Full bar; wine-tasting

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From the April 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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