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Southern Comfort

Christopher Gardner

Delicious Imports: Chef Antonio Graziano, a recent addition to Mondello, draws inspiration from Sicilian cooking.

Three guys from Sicily import Italy's best to Mondello, one of Cupertino's best-kept secrets

By Andrew X. Pham

SAN FRANCISCO may have more restaurants per capita, but Silicon Valley has more restaurants, period. And some of its best are also some of its most hidden--even when they sit in strip malls on a major thoroughfare like Stevens Creek Boulevard.

Although Mondello has occupied its nook in an amorphous business building for more than six years, the Silicon Valley­style office carpeting and smattering of framed prints keep the restaurant looking as fresh--albeit a bit clinical--as the day it opened. Gray tones mute the narrow dining room, which seems restrained considering the high-energy staff.

Joe Landino and his father, Giussepe Landino, originally from Palermo, Italy, recently recruited Antonio Graziano, a true Sicilian chef who has done his rounds at some of the top restaurants in the South Bay. Joe is an amiable proprietor who loves food and works alongside his staff. He likes to elaborate on the menu, which tells of familiar dishes such as minestrone, tortellini soup, veal scaloppine, gamberi rusticana (sautéed shrimp and artichoke in marinara sauce) and seafood linguine.

One evening, after enjoying a warm baguette with olive oil and balsamic vinegar leafed with chopped fresh herbs, we started our meal with the evening antipasto ($6), a platter of roasted bell pepper, eggplant in spicy marinara sauce, and vinegar-sharp artichoke hearts. Smartly composed and properly chilled, this trio of contrasting flavors jump-started our palates into high gear for a Sicilian insalata di mare ($8), a two-fisted catch of gently steamed bay shrimp and calamari. Chilled and heaped atop a net of red lettuce and arugula, the rings of baby squid roosted well with lemon and Italian table wine ('95 Dorino Livon merlot--$6 a glass).

Although the kitchen doesn't produce its pasta from scratch, it serves premium Italian linguine and penne. The one pasta entry that caught our eyes was gnocchi dorati ($9.50), potato dumplings in a tomato sauce (also available with a gorgonzola sauce). At first sight, we thought the gnocchi were left in a pillow shape because the chef didn't have time to thumb-roll them into shells, but with a single bite we found each dumpling had a bellyful of béchamel and ricotta. The doughy texture of gnocchi blended well with the sage-scented tomato cream and grated Parmesan.

The touted salmon Mondello ($15) faltered because the slight nature of the salmon couldn't bear the overpoweringly salty marinara sauce. Apparently, this is not one of Graziano's own recipes; it came off a little unbalanced. However, his ample use of fresh basil carried this dish. As we had found on previous occasions, the better choices tended to be the day's specials, Graziano's real playground.

At a time when just about every eatery, Italian or otherwise, offers tiramisu, Graziano crafts a version that belongs in the winner's circle. Prime ingredients in perfect proportion--not too rich, not too sweet--so that with a single bite one wonders just what makes it so good.

Some tiramisu aficionados prefer it chilled; some like it frozen. In our opinion, it could be quite ravishing in a skirt of raspberry coulis, which of course no restaurant has ever offered. Fortunately, Mondello makes an excellent coulis to go with its creamy, chocolaty toscanella (also exceptionally good) and will accommodate any wish.

Mondello isn't what it seems at first glance. The impartial decor and the businesslike glass front belie the food and dolci extravaganza just inside the door--one of Cupertino's best dining bets.


Address: 20343 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino
Phone: 408/257-2383
Hours: Lunch Mon.­Fri. 11:30am­2pm; Dinner Mon.­Sat. 5­9:30pm; closed Sun.
Cuisine: hearty Italian, Sicilian slant
Price: starters $5­$12, entrees $9­$16 (lunch $5­$12)
Ambiance: casual

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From the June 5-11, 1997 issue of Metro

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