Benissimo Ristorante & Bar
By Ella Lawrence
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.
While Corte Madera has a lot to offer in the way of malls, shopping and more shopping, restaurant ambiance is not one of the reasons to visit--or so I thought until discovering Benissimo Ristorante & Bar. Tucked away right at the end of Camino Alto, the back-road hill that curves over the grade to Mill Valley, Benissimo has all the authenticity of a neighborhood Italian restaurant without the forced campiness from which many other "family Italian" restaurants suffer.
The dining room is large enough to seat 50 or 60, yet small enough to remain cozy without feeling cramped. In true Italian style, the owner greets you at the table, and it's quite possible you might see a neighbor or two dining across the aisle. The best tables are the two outside: double French doors open onto a wrought-iron patio, which allows diners full view of the street from behind a lush canopy of hanging and potted plants.
The wine list is large but not overwhelming. We started with a glass of the Italio Cescon from Friuli ($7.50). The Pinot Grigio was perfect: refreshing, with lots of notes of citrus and metal, and solid enough to stand up to the garlicky dressing of the first course cesare ($7.95), a very typical caesar salad, chopped. I would have liked the Romaine hearts whole and an anchovy on top, or perhaps some croutons to liven it up. The calamari fritti ($7.95) were a much better choice, with tiny calamari breaded perfectly and flash-fried so they weren't oily at all. A chunky marinara sauce and tartar sauce accompanied the dish, and there was plenty of fresh lemon to squeeze over the squid (which did not get soggy with the addition of liquid).
Main courses were the risotto con pollo ($14.95), arborio rice with strips of chicken and sundried tomato, and mushrooms. The tomato-based sauce was nice, lightening what might have been an otherwise overly heavy dish, and the flavors worked perfectly together. The pasta special ($15.95) was the biggest winner. Housemade pappardelle (a flat noodle about twice as wide as fettuccine) was mixed simply with three kinds of mushrooms and thinly sliced ham ribbons in a light cream sauce. It was delicious, but I could only eat about a third of it. Portions are not overly large, and nor are they skimpy. On the waiter's recommendation, we would have chosen two glasses of the Napa Pinot Noir made for the restaurant, but he never returned to the table after dropping off the main courses, which arrived hurriedly. Understandable, though; we were the very last table in the restaurant at 10pm. Maybe next time I'll try to get my shopping done a little earlier.
Benissimo Ristorante & Bar, 18 Tamalpais Drive, Corte Madera. Open daily for lunch and dinner. 415.927.2316.
From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.