Wednesday, September 19, 2007 (SF Chronicle)
Dining Out: Lafayette's La Finestra focuses on flavors of Sicily
Karola Saekel, Special to The Chronicle
Italian restaurants have proliferated east of the Caldecott Tunnel like
porcini after a good rain. So, at not yet 10 years old, La Finestra can be
considered a veteran.
There have been changes since Andrea and Maureen Ditta took over the
quirky but charming location in a commercial building in the center of the
Lafayette Circle in the late '90s.
The Dittas left three years ago and were succeeded by Jeff Assadi. Ditta
is Sicilian; Assadi hails from Iran, but if anything, the food has become
more ethnic under the stewardship of this trained civil and structural
engineer, mentored by restaurateur Faz Poursohi. Assadi, who says cooking
is his passion, worked with Ditta for a few months to steep himself in
He has expanded the menu and offers a large number of daily specials - so
large, in fact, that diners may confused by the time the server finishes
the recitation. At one dinner, my companion finally said, "There was
halibut, right? I'll have that."
That halibut ($22.95) turned out to be one of the priciest but also one of
the best choices in three recent meals, with the ample serving of
perfectly cooked fish complemented by a stew-like sauce of tomatoes, black
olives, pine nuts and more. Sicilian signatures
The pine nuts are a Sicilian signature, as is the use of dried fruit -
raisins, cranberries - in savory dishes, which is rarely seen in the rest
of Italy. A fine example of this Arab-influenced style is gamberoni all
uva passa ($8.95), a first course of sauteed jumbo prawns in a spicy sauce
studded with pine nuts and raisins and served on garlic crostini.
The menu also offers proof of Sicily's love affair with eggplant, which
appears in many guises. Involtini di melanzane ($7.95) rolls grilled
eggplant slices around a filling of ricotta and Romano cheese and tops the
whole with a robust tomato sauce. Penne a la Norma con pollo ($12.95
dinner/$10.95 lunch) deliciously adds roasted eggplant to pasta with
chicken in a spicy tomato sauce.
Though I am an eggplant fan, I was not as pleased with its presentation in
another starter, antipasto misto ($9.95). The huge platter also holds
grilled zucchini, potatoes, mushrooms and artichokes that look like the
marinated jarred version.
The taste of the olive oil- and balsamic vinegar-dressed vegetables was
pleasant enough, but the large slices of eggplant were flabby, and the
platter, a study in dull green to brown, had a monochromatic look.
Two starters that proved excellent were the soups we sampled on a cool
evening. Porcini in brodo ($5.95) is creamy, a mushroom lover's dream, and
minestrone bianco ($4.95) manages to be both filling and light, with a bit
of cream smoothing the well-flavored broth.
This delicate touch is not evident in all dishes, with spices, salt and
garlic making a strong showing in dishes such as penne alla Salsicce
($12.95/$10.95), a lusty pasta with Italian sausage and mushrooms.
The dipping sauce for the excellent house-baked foccacia strips that start
every meal is another strong-flavored element, with its mixture of olive
oil, balsamic, chopped olives, garlic and a hint of mint.
We sopped it up on two visits, but before our third meal, the garlic was
so pungent we worried that it might render taste buds insensitive to
nuances, like the substantial gnocchi al funghi ($9.95/$8.95) in a brown
butter sauce that delivered plenty of mushrooms but not the promised sage.
Hearty meat loaf
Spinach served with several dishes, including a frequent special, fine
petrale sole ($19.95) with lemon-caper sauce, also forms a strong alliance
with garlic. The staff is well versed in the menu and can either ask the
kitchen to modify a dish or steer you to a less zesty selection.
One frequent special that should gain even more favor as the weather cools
is Sicilian meat loaf ($19.95), a hefty slab of well-seasoned meat mixed
with tomatoes, olives, crispy potatoes and steamed fresh vegetables -
sheer Palermo comfort food.
For a lighter entree, there are several chicken dishes and a very good
vittellina con porcini ($16.95) - did I mention chef Assadi loves porcini?
- sauteed tender veal in a white wine sauce studded with mushrooms.
La Finestra, which translates to "window," has three alcove-like areas
radiating from the host stand, giving the 55-seat restaurant a
comfortable, village feel underlined by pale walls with vivid green trim
and a few simple framed Italian photo scenes.
The dim overhead lighting (aided by candles) is cozy at night, a bit drab
in the daytime.
However, in good weather, 22 seats on two balcony patios offer a cheerful
alternative, though the plain metal chairs are a bit hard.
The extensive wine list has mostly Italian wines at standard markup. There
is a good selection of half bottles and wines by the glass, although the
glassware is oddly pedestrian.
Dolci are more than an afterthought here, with the expected spumoni ($5),
ricotta- and candied fruit-stuffed cannoli ($6) and a dense tiramisu ($6)
that is happily neither too sweet nor too boozy. Bacio, or kiss ($6.50),
is a large ball of unmolded chocolate-hazelnut souffle. But even if you
don't order dessert, a dinner at La Finestra ends on a sweet note, with a
small complimentary glass of Marsala and a biscotti.
La Finestra Ristorante
100 Lafayette Circle, Suite 100, Lafayette; (650) 284-5282 or
www.lafinestraristorante.com. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday;
dinner 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Free parking lot.
TWO AND A HALF STARS
Atmosphere Rating: TWO STARS
FoodRating:TWO AND A HALF STARS
Prices$: TWO AND A HALF STARS
Noise RatingNoise Rating:THREE BELLS
Pluses: Wide selection of interesting Sicilian dishes; good service;
hospitable free after-dinner wine and cookie.
Minuses: Garlic can be too dominant in some dishes; awkward restroom
location on an upper floor.
Karola Saekel is a former Chronicle staff writer. E-mail comments to
email@example.com, and visit sfgate.com/food for comprehensive Bay Area
restaurant reviews and listings. ----------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright 2007 SF Chronicle
Sicilian restaurants in the Bay Area?
Are there any decent Sicilian restaurants in the Bay Area?!? There seems to be far too
many Northern Italian restaurants, when Sicilian is to die for! With its varied influences
from Greek, Roman, Spanish, North African and Arab food cultures, it's sadly lacking
the Bay Area.
Lafayette's best kept secret
Tucked away in an office complex is Lafayette's best kept culinary secret. This small
restaurant never fails to delight us with distinctive Sicilian dishes featuring the most
carefully selected ingredients. Vegetables taste like they were picked from the garden,
veal rich and flavorful, fish and seafood never overcooked, and duck to die for. Pasta
dishes are bold and satisfying. Portions are generous and side dishes well thought out.
The daily specials are truly special. From the moment you are seated and the warm
focaccia, heady olive oil, and tapenade are placed on the table, until the last morsel
of chocolate hazelnut souffle is gone, every bite is satisfying. This is good, honest,
delicious food. Prices are also quite reasonable. [31 Jan 2004 13:23:45]
Food: Service: Ambiance: Overall:
Recommended Dishes: Porcini in brodo, duck breast with pomegranates and oranges, prawn
appetizer on crostini with pine nuts and raisins, fresh mozzarella salad on tomatoes, gnocchi
I had two of the best gourmet meals of my life here at La Finestra in May, 2005. One was
lunch, one was dinner. Both times we were waited upon impeccably by the Host, who
personally chose the wines. The dishes were exquisite, the desserts perfect, and the added
complimentary Marsala an unexpected treat. The price was right, as well. [12 Aug 2005 01:39:28]
Food: Service: Ambiance: Overall:
Recommended Dishes: Duck Breast, Filet scallopini
Lisa E, Montclair Village, Oakland, CA
This is a true Sicilian Restaurant
We dine at this restaurant almost once a month, and I need to say this restaurant is charming and
romantic as Bill Staggs of San Francisco Chronicle said once. Last week I had the best Veal
Porterhouse with cheese ravioli with sage butter ever, and my wife had the Sole Piccata over baby
spinach. If you are there ask for Tony, he will give you the best treat. [03 Sep 2005 04:05:43]
Food: Service: Ambiance: Overall:
Recommended Dishes: Veal Porterhouse, Sole Piccata
Friday, March 19, 1999 (SF Chronicle)
Charming La Finestra in Lafayette Well Worth Seeking Out
(03-19) 04:00 PDT LAFAYETTE -- Turning off busy Mount Diablo Boulevard
onto back street Lafayette Circle, I knew exactly where I was heading.
Just hours before, my saint of a dental hygienist had given me good
directions and a glowing review of a new hideaway restaurant -- La
Finestra -- set back amid tall redwoods.
A year or so earlier, in the spot where the charming La Finestra
now stands, I had lunched and dined at a casual neighborhood spot, the
kind of place with espresso drinks, sandwiches and salads and homespun
dinners. But the changes by new owners Andrea and Maureen Ditta made any
feeling of "deja vu" out of the question.
The dining room -- with its central space with two small alcoves -- is
remarkably elegant for its modest size. A large mirror seems to double the
space, and tall windows look out on two small decks and towering trees.
Framed photographs of Italian street scenes draw the eyes around the room,
and operatic arias float from hidden speakers. The whole effect is
soothing, enhanced by soft lighting and the aroma of garlic and olive oil
wafting from the kitchen.
Andrea Ditta is from Sicily, and the menu reflects his native cuisine and
its Italian, Spanish and Arabic influences. Of course there are tomatoes
and eggplant, penne and prawns, but there are also the pervasive black
olives and raisins, almonds and saffron of southern Italy and its islands.
A PROMISING START
Meals start with Ditta's excellent focaccia, hot from the oven, cut into
batons, and accompanied by a dish of garlic-infused olive oil for dipping.
From the five appetizers, we chose sauteed prawns on garlic crostini
($7.95), and spinach and ricotta dumplings ($6.95).
The four fat shrimp, each set atop a square of garlicky toast, came tender
and sweet, in a pan sauce rich with raisins and pine nuts. A good dose of
garlic was well tempered by the sweetness of the raisins, and the squares
of toast, soaked with sauce, were irresistible.
A more northerly, Tuscan dish -- malfatti, or spinach and ricotta
dumplings ($6.95) -- brought two large dumplings in a delicious sea of
what Ditta calls "Sicilian pesto." This tomato-based version of pesto was
enhanced by a generous shaving of salty ricotta salata cheese, added at
the table by a member of the young and efficient staff. In addition to the
tangy ricotta, you can ask for pecorino romano or grana padano to be
grated over your pasta dishes -- a very nice and generous touch.
Although we didn't try them, La Finestra also seems prepared for
vegetarians with two non-meaty antipasti: grilled vegetables for two with
fresh herbs ($8.95), and grilled eggplant stuffed with ricotta and romano
Salads are pleasantly distinctive, too. The mixed baby greens ($3.95),
flecked with black olives and onion, are tossed in a lemon and ground
almond dressing. The result is a delicious departure from the standard
vinaigrette. Equally good was the insalata Ericina ($5.95), baby greens in
a balsamic vinaigrette, surrounded by slices of new potato and tomato
doused with an herb dressing.
Five is again the magic number in the pasta category. Although the penne
with tomato and eggplant ($8.95) and the linguine with prawns ($14.95)
tempted us, I went the classic route with penne alla carbonara ($8.95).
Ditta's rendition is fortunately less cloying than most, though still rich
with cream and pancetta in its medium-bodied sauce. The sweetness of peas
and the tang of onions made for a very good and balanced plate.
Gnocchi with mushrooms ($9.95) was Mom's choice. She liked the small but
substantial potato dumplings, sauced with brown butter and sage, even
though she deemed them heavier than her mother's version.
Peas and black olives appear again in the chicken breast with Marsala
($10.95). The double breast, flattened and tender, was accompanied by
white beans and a delicious ragout of zucchini in a tomato sauce. I wasn't
convinced of the need for peas in this well-executed dish, though the
bright green certainly added to the visual appeal.
Eggplant parmigiana ($10.95) needed only a little more crunch from bread
crumbs to be a prefect rendition of this traditional vegetarian favorite.
A BOLD APPROACH
Chef Ditta offers one or two specials daily. A huge osso bucco ($18.95)
was tender and flavorful, its success undone ever so slightly by too-salty
carrots in the rich sauce. But this willingness to season food, to coax
out flavors and to saute aggressively are some of the things I like most
about Ditta's cooking. He is not trapped in the Tuscan mold or penned in
by timidity. Such an approach might mean occasional excesses or a hint too
much salt or garlic too browned, but can also lead to glorious successes.
The succinct wine list features mainly Italian bottles, from $17 to $31,
with several available by the glass at $4.50.
Desserts are more than an afterthought at La Finestra. Before coming to
the United States, Ditta worked in Tuscany for five years in bakeries and
restaurants. The three desserts available were all delicious and
A tiramisu ($4.50) was creamily rich, topped with a dusting of cocoa and
powdered coffee. A semifreddo ($4.50), essentially a vanilla-based frozen
mousse rich with hazelnuts, floated in a barely sweetened sauce of fresh
A SWEET KISS
But most intriguing was what Ditta calls a bacio, or kiss ($5.50), a
crusty-surfaced chocolate souffle studded with chopped hazelnuts. The chef
says he was trying to match the flavors of the famous Perugina
chocolate-covered hazelnut treat.
He more than succeeds. The souffle, arriving unmolded and inverted on a
plate, accompanied by dollops of whipped cream, spills out a creamy
chocolate center when you cut into it. It is unique and delicious, and all
I would ask for is a little more whipped cream to play against the rich
A charming dining room, an efficient staff, an interesting menu and
well-executed dishes add up to a quality newcomer in Lafayette. La
Finestra is worth finding.
LA FINESTRA RISTORANTE ADDRESS: 100 Lafayette Circle, Suite 101 (at the
intersection of Mount Diablo Boulevard, Oak Hill Road and Lafayette
Circle), Lafayette PHONE: (925) 284-5282 HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Tuesday-Friday. Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, until 9 p.m. Sunday.
Beer and wine served. Credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended.
Outdoor seating. Easy off-street parking.
Bill Staggs, who worked at Chez Panisse for 20 years, also has written for
the New York Times and Diablo Magazine. His reviews appear three times
monthly in this section. OVERALL: TWO AND A HALF STARS
Food: TWO AND A HALF STARS
Service: TWO STARS
Atmosphere: TWO AND A HALF STARS
NOISE RATING: TWO BELLS
PLUSES: A simple, tasteful dining room, full-flavored
Sicilian dishes and very good desserts.
MINUSES: An occasional, if slight, excess of salt.
Restaurant can be hard to find on the first visit.
FOUR STARS: Extraordinary
THREE STARS: Excellent
TWO STARS: Good
ONE STAR: Fair
When entrees fall between these categories, the prices of appetizers help
determine the dollar ratings
$ Inexpensive: entrees under $7
$$ Moderate: $7-$14
$$$ Expensive: $15-$20
$$$$ Very Expensive: $20+
KEY TO NOISE RATINGS:
ONE BELL: Pleasantly quiet (under 65 decibels)
TWO BELLS: Can talk easily (65-70)
THREE BELLS: Talking normally gets difficult (70-75)
FOUR BELLS: Can only talk in raised voices(75-80)
BOMB: Too Noisy for normal conversation(80+)