Carla Meyer

Dining review: Osteria Fasulo in Davis captures an elegant Italian experience

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

The lasagna Bolognese that comes out of executive chef Atilio Carranza's kitchen is a little piece of performance art. It is culinary magic, and something of an illusion.

After our server at Osteria Fasulo in Davis set it down before us one recent evening, we breathed in deeply, taking in the aromas and anticipating the experience. We were delighted, but also a tinge reluctant.

It looked delicious. But this lasagna also seemed so robust, so rich and, with a half-dozen layers of pasta and sauce and cheese, so inevitably heavy. A white béchamel sauce, thickened with shavings of Parmesan, seasoned with nutmeg and spooned onto the plate, added to our sense that this would be a decadent dish – perhaps an overwhelming one.

Then I dug in. The subtle flavors fanned out in my mouth, and everything I thought I knew slipped away. It wasn't the least bit heavy. The pasta was so thin and delicate that, bite after bite, the dish simply floated, lingered and then melted into nothingness.

The simplicity here, like the best of Italian cooking, also is an illusion. The sauce alone, made with ground beef, veal and pork, simmers a minimum of three hours to arrive at that kind of texture and flavor. The handmade spinach pasta is rolled out so thin you could see through it.

It takes two days to make this lasagna but a matter of minutes to size it up, taste it and make it disappear.

I wish I could have it to do again. I would be more deliberate. I wouldn't let it all slip away so easily – and so soon.

At Osteria Fasulo, the service is friendly and not the least bit stuffy, and the room is as cozy and casual as any osteria you'll find in the old country.

We encountered the very best of Osteria Fasulo on our second and third visits.

The first? I wish we could have called upon some magic either to save that evening or whisk us away. It was a long, long night of poor timing from course to course, too much waiting and at least three significant missteps.

This was a wine dinner and the concept was excellent: Bledsoe pork and Boeger wines, two area businesses that have developed a well-deserved following. The price was $50 for five courses with wine pairings. It was to start at 6 p.m.

We arrived at 5:55 and we received a warm welcome. Moments after we were seated, our server brought us melon wrapped in prosciutto and a glass of complimentary prosecco. We nibbled and sipped, and sipped some more. We ate our bread. We waited, watched, and did we mention we waited? We looked at our watches.

It was the renowned French food writer Jean Brillat-Savarin who wrote the following in 1825: "To wait too long for a dilatory guest, shows disrespect for those who are punctual." Those words resonated as 6 p.m. became 6:30.

Our server apologized – twice – and told us at 6:45 that a late guest finally had arrived and the dinner would begin.

The food was OK in parts, bland in others and, in the case of the porchetta, so improperly cooked – the skin was not crisped but rendered bricklike and inedible – that we were dismayed. The pork ragout was timidly seasoned and nearly tasteless. The dessert that night, a "chocolate box" cakelike offering, was dry and hard. The wines, as much as we liked them, couldn't salvage the evening.

Beaten down and taken aback, we wondered how we would assess this much- admired restaurant. We kept an open mind. Perhaps, I thought, the tiny kitchen had overextended itself. Maybe the regular menu would work better.

We returned within days and it was a completely different restaurant. Our server had the perfect touch. She knew the food. She believed in the restaurant. She was fun and enthusiastic, everything we could want in a server. She brought us a couple of extra tastes of wine. She chatted. The food came out at just the right moments.

I had an impressive fish special – line-caught California swordfish baked in the form of a roulade – meaning it was pounded flat, filled with radicchio and spinach, rolled up, coated in ground pistachios, fried to get a crisp crust and then finished in the oven. As soon as I tasted it, and as soon as we ate our gnocchi in a truffle ragout butter sauce, I knew my hunch was right: The chef had a master's grip on the daily menu.

The polenta di lasagna was wonderfully done, and was a playful and delicious starter. Even the tiny amuse bouche – pear wrapped in prosciutto on a fried pasta cracker – was a delight. The crepes for dessert also worked well – filled with lemon and berry cream and topped with a splash of Amaretto.

By the end of our third visit, in which we encountered the magic that is the lasagna Bolognese, the turnaround was complete, our first impression all but wiped away.

During the third visit, we enjoyed another nicely presented dish with a signature touch – grilled venison chops served alongside sautéed leeks and spaghetti squash. The sauce was delicious: a red wine demi-glacé with blueberries and Nutella, the hazelnut spread usually reserved for toast and other treats. It worked, creating a subtle smoky sweetness that balanced the mild gaminess of the venison, cooked rare. The meat was exceptionally tender and the overall dish a pleasant success, one of many.

The food is expensive, but that's relative. Everything is made from scratch. The fish is fresh. When there is no wild salmon on the market, there is no wild salmon on the menu.

Dinner for two can cost $100 or more, if you eat in courses and try different areas of the menu. For something subtle and luxurious to begin, try the carpaccio alla Leonardo, which is tissue-thin beef topped with equally thin lobster tail, and served with lemon and olive oil. For a seasonal treat, get there while the kitchen is still doing the butternut squash ravioli, which has sweet and savory elements we appreciated. Some of the roasted squash actually is mixed into the handmade pasta used in this dish. The seven layers of the lasagna we loved is $20. We'll forget the price long before we forget how good it was.

Osteria Fasulo is owned by Leonardo Fasulo, who is often at the restaurant. His paintings adorn the walls, as do many family photos. His son Matteo is one of the waiters. Those two, as well as the other employees, treat guests like family. It's very real, very warm and, like the food at the best of times, perfectly Italian.

Osteria Fasulo

2657 Portage Bay East, Davis

(530) 758-1324

Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner: 5:30-9 p.m. (last seating) Monday to Saturday. Reservations recommended.

Full bar? Beer and wine only.

Takeout? Not recommended.

Vegetarian friendly? Yes.

Overall 3 stars (good)

Want to feel like you just dropped by a cozy family-run osteria in Italy? This is it. From the warm service to the crowd-pleasing Italian cuisine, this is often a sure bet for a fine meal. Our disappointing $50-per-person wine dinner, however, left us wondering if this was the same restaurant.

Food 3 stars (good)

Several dishes on the regular menu are first-rate, including lasagna, gnocchi in butter sauce, venison chops, and various fresh-fish specials. The missteps at the prix-fixe wine dinner – overly crisp skin on the pork, underseasoned ragout and a dried-out dessert – brought this rating down half a star. The wine list features Italian and Californian labels, with many excellent choices at various price points. Servers will often offer a sample for the undecided.

Service 3 1/2 stars (very good)

The style is casual but very attentive. At the best of times, it feels like you're being waited on by family. One server, Patricia, was outstanding. She elevated a very pleasant meal to a great one.

Ambience 3 1/2 stars (excellent)

Osteria can serve as an example to other restaurants that struggle to give their dining rooms personality. The place has soul. The framed family photos on the wall are real. The paintings are by the owner. There are no generic Euro advertising prints or any of the clichéd décor we see at other restaurants.

Value 3 stars(good)

The vibe may be casual, but the food is expensive, especially when you enjoy a meal in three or four courses. Expect to pay $75 to $150 for two depending on wine selections. All of the food is made from scratch and is very fresh. The lasagna takes two days from start to finish.

Noteworthy: The restaurant is slated to close for the first three weeks in January for a family vacation to Italy. Also, Osteria Fasulo is serving a four-course Thanksgiving dinner, $45 per person.