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First Bite 

Sal's Bistro & Grill

July 18-24, 2007

It's interesting how, sometimes, service makes the meal. The waiter at our recent dinner at Sal's Bistro & Grill in Petaluma was so friendly, so attentive and so enthusiastic about everything on the menu that he boosted my dinner check by perhaps double. He also upped my happiness to such heights that I didn't realize until quite a while later that I hadn't enjoyed my food quite as much as I thought I had.

Which is not a bad thing, not at all. Just interesting.

Sal's is a small spot that opened this spring in the Albertson's strip mall on Petaluma's Lakeville Street. From the sidewalk, it looks like just a pizza joint, but it's not. Sure, New York-style pie is offered, yet so are fancier specials like cioppino and seafood risotto. There's a hot pastrami sandwich on the menu, but also a rib-eye with peppercorn brandy sauce. Sal's has got an order board over the front counter, and on the night I was in, was populated by gang-enforcement officers grabbing takeout, but there's no overlooking that head-turning table service.

For example, when our waiter overheard us wondering if we should start with the French onion soup ($5), garlic bread ($5) or a small combo pizza ($10), he enthused, "Get 'em all," rhapsodizing about the gooey Gruyère-cloaked broth baked in a crock, the real garlic pressed into the bread's butter and Parmesan, and the masterful blend of 13 ingredients in the pie.

It wasn't until mom and I were halfway through our orgy of apps that the glow faded and we realized the soup was indeed gorgeous but sadistically oversalted, the bread not much better than everyday toast and the pizza remarkable for how, in just eight inches, it hosted ridiculous amounts of Italian sausage, salami, pepperoni, smoked bacon, mushrooms, bell peppers, onion, olive, tomato, artichoke heart, basil, tomato sauce and mozzarella.

My chicken Parmesan ($14) was ordinary, and I'd have preferred spaghetti alongside instead of over-roasted potatoes and string beans. But my waiter had slipped me "a very fine" Greek salad instead of the usual green toss that comes with, so I was happy. Mom's cioppino ($23) was superb in its own right, swimming meaty with fish, clams, shrimp and shell-on crab in a chunky tomato broth; we didn't really care that, if our waiter had let us know this dish came with garlic bread, we could have saved five bucks on the appetizer.

The dessert our waiter had extolled as "chiffon kissed by summer fruit" was not, but with his pretty words ringing in my memory, the strawberry shortcake ($3) was pretty darn lovely.

As I sat at the table, I thought, "I'd like to come back. Sal's feels good, really good."

I got to my car and thought, "Huh. Sal's was nice."

Which is not a bad conclusion. Just interesting.

Sal's Bistro. 919 Lakeville St, Petaluma. Open daily, 11am to 10pm. 707.765.5900.

Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.

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