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Cafe Culture

Christopher Gardner

At Your Service: The staff at Cafe Marcella dishes up equal doses of charm and consideration.

In a town of hot dining venues, Los Gatos' Cafe Marcella still soars effortlessly to heights of style, substance and savvy service

By Christina Waters

FROM THE moment it opened, Cafe Marcella had all the sheen and polish of a class act. Still does. Good-looking rooms--like this gleaming white bistro space punctuated by bold faience displays, colorful canvases and the obligatory floral explosion--tend to attract good-looking people.

And waiters, as my new best friend Phyllis and I observed, rather happily I might add, when we put on some serious dresses and hit Marcella in search of some good wine and food last week. We found all of the above, plus an easy aura of confidence fueled by a devoted local following.

Like many early diners, we succumbed to the temptation of the cafe's adjoining Marcella's Market, stocked with an accessibly priced array of French and Italian imports--the sort that rarely show up on our side of the Atlantic. Hmmm--I spied a St. Chinian from the Languedoc for a very low price and was told that I could sample it next door, where it was a featured wine-by-the-glass that evening. Nice idea, especially because the cafe proprietors will happily open up the wine shop if you want to browse and buy after the market's 6:30pm closing.

But on to dinner, where memories of the best pasta Bolognese I'd ever tasted (another dinner, three years ago, at Cafe Marcella) hit me the minute I took my corner seat overlooking the action and the cafe's famously high-volume acoustics. I like the sounds of people having fun at dinner. It's a setting that inspires adventurous appetites.

Phyllis brought such an appetite to the table that evening, and after some sample sips helpfully provided by our server, we settled on glasses of the supple St. Chinian 1993 ($5.75) and a berry-filled Thomas Fogarty Pinot Noir 1993 ($6).

An appetizer of crostini, gleaming with a transparent glaze of olive oil, got us started ($6.50). The crisp toasts arrived with a trio of spreads: herby goat cheese (my favorite), an intense sun-dried tomato creation, and a bravura tapenade the color of midnight. Clearly this sort of appetizer, joined by ample wine and salad, could make an entire meal.

We had to pace ourselves, and next split what Phyllis rightly guessed would make a diverting second course--a salad of arugula and beets, served with a slice of hard-boiled egg and a very light shallot vinaigrette ($6.50). "There's just something about the tartness of the arugula, and the sweetness of the beets," she said, "that ought to be exciting." It was. It was also sensuous, cool and utterly delicious.

At our waiter's helpful suggestion, I'd ordered a half portion of the memorable pasta, called Noni's ("grandma's"; $6.50), an impeccable preparation of al dente spaghetti lightly sauced with a tomato infusion of three meats--veal, pork and beef. With the addition of Parmesan, it lived up to my memory--and to its name. Exquisite balance of ingredients, here a hint of thyme, there some sage, merged into what amounted to a killer pasta creation. No one note stood out--everything sang.

Then came our shared order of the evening's seafood, a sautéed striped bass, cut into plump, medium-rare steaks and drizzled with lemon and capers in butter. By now our second glasses of the wonderful St. Chinian had opened into a richly rounded interior of grenache and syrah grapes. Full-bodied red wine is absolutely right with a fine piece of fresh fish.

We also worked our way through soft clouds of chive-laced whipped potatoes--I know I heard Phyllis moan more than once. There were some perfectly nice green beans, local and organic, as well as slices of golden squash, but frankly, the fish and potatoes held our full attention.

The blue glass vase filled with fresh flowers on our table glowed in the setting sunlight as we sipped decaf cappuccinos and probed the warm recesses of a lovely berry cobbler served with scoops of vanilla gelato ($5). The cobbler topping came from the crumbly, granola school of thought, and made a munchy contrast with the soft, smooth berry interior.

I could have done without the gelato, whose tang seemed at cross purposes with the berries. Perhaps a soft dollop of unsweetened whipped cream. But why quibble with such a charming meal?

Cafe Marcella

Address: 368 Village Lane, Los Gatos
Phone: 408/354-8006
Hours: Dinner Tue.­Sun., 4:30­9:30pm (open until 10:30pm Fri.­Sat.); lunch Tue.­Sat., 11:30am­2:30pm. Closed Monday.
Cuisine: contemporary Italian
Ambiance: wine bar and bistro glam
Service: Winning--great-looking waiters willing to split orders
Price: Inexpensive to moderate
Extras: Adjoining Marcella's Market open daily, 11am­6:30pm, or by appointment.
Call 408/399-7735

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro

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