Venecia takes over where Spado's used to rule.
Thursday, March 27, 2003
From the moment the old Spado''s in Salinas opened under new ownership and a new name six months ago, the restaurant had some pretty big shoes to fill. You could almost feel the collective shudders of apprehension among the loyal crowd that held Spado''s so close to their hearts. But to Venecia''s credit, once the ink of change had dried and the regular crowd had settled in, the greatest truth to be found here was that not much had changed--and yet, everything had changed.
There is something comforting and charming about the twinkle lights and manicured gardens that still lead the way to the inviting double French door entry. If I hadn''t known any better, I might have thought I''d landed on the pages of Sunset Magazine.
Inside the door, a familiar voice with a deep Sicilian accent bellowed out, "Welcome, welcome," as if an old and dear friend had just walked in, though we''d never met. It was Venecia''s soon-to-be owner Mario Melhem, the same fellow who''d taken my reservations days earlier, coming to greet us with outstretched arms and a warm smile. His fatherly charm had been hard to forget. "Michelle," I remembered him saying, "I look forward to seeing you this weekend." Not we but I. And I believed him.
Mario led us to our table directly in the center of the room, pulled out my chair, and placed all of our napkins in our laps, then introduced himself to the bambinos and dolled out pet names apropos of nothing but his style. He nicknamed my seven-year-old "Big Bob," and my 10-year-old "Little Boss." It was immediately apparent that our host''s charisma and attention to the most minute of details were simply second nature.
The menu is as it was in Spado''s time, from pastas and pizzas to seafood and steaks. But that''s not to say that Venecia has buried itself in the quicksand cliche of being a jack of all trades and master of none. The Mediterranean-style dishes proved to be chock full of flare and personality.
As is the norm for me when starved and overwhelmed by choice, I asked Mario for help. "Tonight," he commanded, "you will have the chef''s special seafood pasta." Umm, okay, that worked for me. "And you will start with a Caesar salad, yes?" he asked. I drew the line. "No, I don''t like Caesars." Mario nodded in understanding. "Okay, then mixed greens for you instead," he decided out loud. He assured me he''d pair it all with the perfect wine.
My companion, Boss, stuck to tri-tip on a bed of whipped potatoes and a Caesar salad, then jumped continents and ordered up a Heineken. Little Boss decided on pepperoni pizza, and Big Bob chose a half-cheese, half-pepperoni pie.
Our drinks appeared and, soon thereafter, a decorative cone of bread. Though the bread wasn''t warm or served with any accompaniment, it was still a nice complement to my arugula and radicchio salad tossed with a mild vinaigrette and crumbled blue cheese. When Mario noticed that Boss had created his own bread dip with the olive oil and vinegar on the table, he quickly appeared with freshly minced garlic to perk it up. It worked beautifully.
Though our dishes arrived one at a time at quite well-spaced intervals, they were well worth the wait. My linguine in garlic sauce was filled with mussels, rock shrimp, scallops, and the flakiest of salmon. I couldn''t help but remember a friend of mine commenting recently that she was convinced they must catch the fish right out of their parking lot, it''s so fresh. I didn''t see a tank, but I had to agree.
Boss'' tri-tip may well have been bred on site as well. Even the shameful cutlery in my home kitchen could have sliced through the tender beef, which was unscathed by any fancy marinade. Mauricio, the chef, had obviously left the meat to speak for itself.
The pizzas, baked in an open brick pizza oven right in the center of the dining room, were an instant hit with the little ones. Big Bob remarked that "they put the soft kind of cheese" on his. None of us heard a peep out of usually chatty Little Boss for a good 20 minutes while he made a pretty big dent in his.
By the time dessert arrived, we had the place to ourselves. Mario had suggested the crème brulee, but we''d opted to share the tiramisu instead. When Mario set a sundae glass on the table, a pale cream taunting its brim, I was perplexed, but carefully inserted a spoon anyway. We found the scrumptious tiramisu buried about halfway through the cream. The Grand Marnier at the bottom was the hidden treasure, making it easy to forgive the packaged chocolate chips sprinkled on top.
There''s no doubt that Venecia is in the process of discovering itself and securing its place among other top-notch restaurants that have redefined what dinner out means in Salinas. But the right ingredients are certainly already at its fingertips: good food, an unpretentious yet elegant atmosphere, and a Sicilian named Mario who can''t help but make everyone feel at home.