Into a land of overly cheesy lasagna and mass-produced linguine rides chef Salvatore Calisi. Calisi is the former executive chef at Los Gatos’ excellent Dio Deka. He has taken over the kitchen at San Jose’s Ristorante Fratello, a 10-year-old neighborhood Italian restaurant.
He ditched every dish on the menu to create a totally new lineup. He also has plans to open a higher-profile Italian restaurant of his own in Los Gatos. Suddenly, it seems, Silicon Valley’s Italian food scene just got a whole lot better.
Although Calisi’s parents were born in Italy, and he cooked in top Italian restaurants in New York, he was the man responsible for making Dio Deka one of the Bay Area’s top Greek restaurants. Last month, he was awarded a Michelin star, one of just four Silicon Valley chefs to receive the distinction. Ironically, when the award was announced, Calisi was no longer at Dio Deka. He had decamped to a new job at Fratello four months ago.
Michelin stars stay with the chefs that earn them, so that means Fratello now has a Michelin-starred chef in the kitchen. But it is Calisi’s cooking—and not awards from French tire makers—that matters. For Italian food lovers looking for something beyond heavily sauced, overwrought Italian-American food, the revamped Fratello is cause for celebration.
The move to Fratello was a big one for Calisi, 40. He went from a top-of-the-line kitchen to a smaller, neighborhood restaurant with little name recognition. He says that he started to feel stagnant at Dio Deka when plans for additional locations didn’t materialize. Like most chefs, he said he longed for his own restaurants where he would be calling the shots.
As he was contemplating his next move, his son was diagnosed with leukemia, a devastating blow that forced him to take some time off and reassess. Fortunately, he says, his son’s condition is not as dire as he first thought, and things are OK.
Calisi had formed a friendship with Fratello owner Carmine Camporaso soon after he arrived in Los Gatos. So when the opportunity to scale down and partner with him at Fratello arose, he jumped on it. Calisi says it feels good to be cooking Italian food again.
“This is the kind of food I grew up with,” he says.
Fratello occupies a Meridian Avenue shopping center. The interior, with its terra-cotta-colored walls and mishmash of art, doesn’t exactly feel like it’s on the cutting edge. But it’s a comfortable, friendly place that seems to recognize that it is a neighborhood restaurant that can’t get too big for its britches lest it alienate its regulars, Michelin-starred chef or not.
The pasta really stands out here. Calisi makes it fresh, in-house. “It’s just flour and water and a lot of labor, but it makes a difference,” he says.
Yes, it does.
The gnocci all’Anatra ($21) was memorable. The tender and chewy semolina-flour dumplings are bathed in a
duck ragu that’s tinged with orange essence, fresh thyme and Barolo. The result is delicious.
My favorite was the fettuccine al norcino ($18), wide noodles in a deep, hearty meat sauce made from Berkshire pork, Sicilian oregano and roasted tomatoes. It’s simple but deeply satisfying.
I loved the flavors of the ravioli di Manzo ($23), sand-dollar-size truffle and veal-cheek raviolis accented with fennel and orange (Calisi likes orange in his pasta) served in a porcini mushroom and veal broth. My only complaint is that there was too much broth. The liquid all but drowned the ravioli and made fishing them out a challenge.
Calisi’s lamb chops at Dio Deka were some of the best I’ve ever had. I’m happy to report that he serves them at Fratello, too ($35). They were offered as a special on one of my visits and they’re as tender and flavorful as I remember. Too bad they had to come all the way from Australia.
Good, too, is the whole branzino ($26), another favorite at Dio Deka. The sea bass is grilled and served with rosemary-roasted potatoes and a light lemon and caper vinaigrette.
Calisi makes two outstanding starters as well. Capesante in padella ($15) combines pancetta-wrapped sea scallops from British Columbia with white beans and braised escarole in a peperoncino-citrus vinaigrette. The salty, smokiness of the pancetta permeates the fat scallops to make them absolutely delicious.
Also, don’t miss the parmigiana alla Salvatore ($11), thin slices of breaded eggplant stacked with roasted tomatoes and burrata (cream-filled mozzarella) and crowned with a fried egg. This dish is a beauty.
Desserts are good but not as strong as the rest of the menu. My favorite was the orange-vanilla panna cotta served atop a crunchy pastry base inside a moat of chilled mango soup ($8).
When he opens his own restaurant, Calisi says he plans to stay on as the consulting chef at Fratello. Lucky us. A new day of Italian food has dawned in Silicon Valley.