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Italian twist

Chef Hector Quiroga emerges from the kitchen of Trattoria Due Amici in the Apple Valley Plaza in Cotati to personally greet his patrons, inquire about their welfare and make sure they are satisfied with his food.

Along with your food, you're also likely to get a firm handshake, an assessment of the state of the economy, and even a blessing. For chef Quiroga is an earnest man, a well-traveled Spaniard whose wife is Brazilian, which accounts for the fact that he speaks Portuguese as well as Spanish, along with English and Italian, and plans to start learning French.

Some of these cultural influences make their way into his Italian cooking, but not in obvious ways. He aims for straight-ahead Italian dishes, but they aren't always quite what you expect. For instance, his Penne Pasta ($10.95 **) is a big bowl of small tubes of pasta cut on the bias, and served, according to the menu, with Bolognese sauce and parmesan cheese. But the Bolognese sauce seems to have been quickly assembled — the ground beef and tomatoes haven't integrated, and they don't coat the pasta like a proper Bolognese, but sit among the tubes as separate elements. To be traditional, this sauce should be cooked at a low simmer for many hours until it's thick and homogenous and coats its pasta with rich, dark flavor. To be fair, chef Quiroga's sauce tasted fine — but it wasn't a true Bolognese.

Trattoria Due Amici

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The chef is co-owner of this new restaurant — it opened in early November — with Gary Tarantino, who was on hand to welcome patrons on a recent night but then stayed largely out of sight. Neapolitan tarantellas bounced along just a bit too loudly on the sound system (think "Funiculi Funicula"). A print of the Mona Lisa flickers her smile over the room's 10 tables from her spot next to the front door. The windows are hung with curtains and valences, and pictures of Venetian scenes grace the walls.

Dinner started with Minestra($4.75 ***), the Italian word for soup. Most people are familiar with minestrone, a word derived from minestra that means a mixed-up soup of different edibles. This warming soup was just that, with white Tuscan beans, butternut squash, carrots, celery, basil threads, parmesan cheese and house-made croutons. The flavor was mild and the feeling was nourishing.

A Caesar Salad ($6.50 **?) had snapping fresh hearts of romaine, creamy and tangy dressing, parmesan cheese shreds — almost everything a real Caesar salad doesn't have. The lettuce was chopped, which makes it a romaine salad, not a Caesar. The reason a real Caesar has whole leaves of romaine is because Caesar Cardini, who invented the salad at his Tijuana restaurant in 1924, meant for the whole, tender, inner leaves to be picked up and eaten as finger food. Chopping forces one to use utensils, which was not what he intended. Second, real Caesar dressing is not creamy. It's made from six ingredients: olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, a coddled (one minute) egg, salt and pepper, so it's a light, clear sauce. No anchovies; Cardini outlawed them. Besides, there are some anchovies in the Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce (along with high-fructose corn syrup). And the cheese should not be dried-out bits of commercial grated parmesan, but rather thin ribbons of Parmigiano-Reggiano freshly curled from a hunk of the cheese with a slicer, or at least grated fresh from the hunk. Should one really be so finicky about a Caesar salad? If one is going to call it by that name, then yes.

The menu is relatively simple, offering three sandwiches along with six first courses (the primi piatti, mostly pastas) and two second courses (full-on entrees), as well as four pizzas. Sandwich Uno ($8.95 **) is a bready focaccia split into two halves to hold an Italian fennel sausage split in half, melted mozzarella cheese, lettuce and fresh tomato slices. Beside the sandwich is a nice salad of fresh spring-mix lettuces and cherry tomatoes. The sandwich suffered from the overcooked and dry sausage.

The same sausage didn't help the Special Salsiccia Pizza ($17.75 **?), either, although the pizza itself was a fine assemblage of mozzarella — melted so it pulled into long strings — topped with sopressata, then capicola (also known as coppa), then with the fennel sausage. It had plenty of salumi and a good, meaty flavor, but the crust was so soggy you couldn't pick up a slice and eat it out of hand, but rather had to cut it with a knife and eat it with a fork.

The best dish of the night was the simplest: Pollo ($12.50 ***). A pan-seared boneless chicken breast (with the first wing joint still attached), was juicy and flavorful and showed chef Quiroga's long experience with this dish at previous venues. He paired it with fingerling potatoes.

The Arborio rice in Risotto ($14.50 ***) was perfectly cooked, still slightly al dente, in a creamy base made with lots of olive oil, then seeded with five prawns and as many tender, fresh asparagus tips. There are many ways risotto can go wrong, but this risotto was right all the way around. It also was a large, generous bowl.


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