By Sheila Himmel, San Jose Mercury News
*** ½ STARS
Il Postale bustles with activity, and it smells like garlic. I suppose those could be downsides for some people. The rest of us would love to have Il Postale Italian-American bistro near our neighborhood. Downtown Sunnyvale is the lucky one.
Any steroidal chain restaurant can call itself a bistro, but Il Postale fits the definition. Besides being the correct size, Il Postale runs on the personal charm of proprietor Joe Antuzzi. Sixty diners nestle inside, 25 on the heated patio in the back. Antuzzi does the greeting and seating, and much of the staff consists of enthusiastic long timers.
Like the brick wall that marks on remnant of the old Sunnyvale Post Office that Il Postale used to be, there is solidity about this restaurant. Antuzzi opened it nearly 10 years ago and has employed chef Santos Villa from the start. Recipes come from Antuzzi’s mother and grandmother and portions are large. Our server had the confidence and knowledge of a seven-year veteran. When she said we were her favorite customers that night, we took it as a big compliment, even if she said that to everybody.
Fresh Italian-American white bread, with sesame seeds on the crust, comes from Santa Clara’s landmark Wilson’s bakery.
Daily specials are delivered on postcards rather than in long spiels you’re expected to memorize. They range from soup and a couple of entrees to dessert and martinis.
We tried one of the wines of the day, a glass of ’03 Osis Chardonnay from Santa Barbara County ($5.50). It was OK.
Starters surf a wave of America’s greatest hits from fried calamari and crab cakes to capriccio. A hefty appetizer of sautéed spinach with spinach with seafood ($13.50) must be shared unless this is all you’re eating. Generous numbers of mussels, tender scallops and prawns are draped in a thick and creamy lemon-garlic sauce. Subtle it’s not.
Entrees and pastas offer a similar freedom of choice. If you’re in the mood for steak or salmon, no problem, but I really like the beef braciola ($17.95), in which tender strips of steak are rolled up like sleeping bags with salty prosciutto, sharp provolone cheese, fresh spinach and oregano, and a rich tomato sauce. It comes with sautéed vegetables and a clump of soft polenta, almost like a side of stuffing.
With 16 pastas on hand, your favorite is likely to be here. On of Il Postale’s signature dishes is Capellini (thin strands, but thicker than angel hair) tossed with tiny rock shrimp, Parmesan cheese and a spicy tomato cream sauce, and then topped cream sauce, and then topped with grilled prawns, sea scallops and a pile of sun-dried tomato pesto that you mix in as you like. This is a lot of food, even for $14.95.
For something a little different, try the penne baked with wild boar sausage and herbed Italian sausage from Neto’s in Santa Clara ($13.95). You have to concentrate to note the difference between these lean sausages, and who wants to do that? Both are good. This dish is large and filling, with loads of mozzarella and Asiago cheeses baked on top of a tangy marinara sauce. Another refreshing aspect of Il Postale is that sauces don’t repeat themselves.
On the back of the dinner menu is a cornucopia of pizza (choice of 24 toppings) and Calzone.
The server comes around with grated Parmesan cheese.
Desserts of the day ($6.50) were chocolate mousse with berries, and a Neapolitan cheesecake with ladyfinger walls. The chocolate overpowered its neighboring flavors.
Il Postale has a couple of design flaws. The restroom is out through the patio and up an elevator in an office building with people working. And while there is a full bar, there is only a small counter to sit at and no waiting area.
Frankly, don’t go until this Sunday at least. Little Il Postale is full tonight for New Year’s Eve and then taking a day of rest.