I just discovered the 2-year-old place, and it’s a gem. Tootsie’s is not actually in the Stanford Shopping Center but in the beautiful brick Stanford barn, a historic building just across the street. For anyone who’s hungry and needs an excuse to break away from holiday shopping, consider this a ticket out.

Tootsie’s is open just for breakfast and lunch. The name is misleading: the restaurant specializes in Italian food, great sandwiches, salads and pastries.

Since Tootsie’s is near Stanford Hospital, many of the customers are doctors in lab coats taking a break from brain surgery and colonoscopies. It can make for some interesting eavesdropping to sit near a bunch of hungry doctors, especially inside, where there are only a half-dozen or so cramped tables. There’s more seating outside, which is quite nice when it’s sunny.

I asked owner Rocco Scordella about the name of his restaurant, and he released an audible sigh. “It’s the name of Leland Stanford Jr.’s dog,” he explained.
I’m guessing he’s been asked that a few times before, and just like Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, he’s a little tired of answering questions about the origins of the name. Scordella didn’t even make up the name. It came with the building and was part of the lease he signed.

But he has transcended the twee name and made Tootsie’s into one of Silicon Valley’s top lunch stops. (I didn’t come for breakfast, but I’d wager that’s good, too.)

Scordella, a native of Puglia, blends the cuisine of Italy (Puglia and Emilia-Romagna to be specific) and adds an American influence. For example, he resisted the urge to put a burger on the menu since it’s such a departure from Italy. Instead, he riffed on polpettone, Italian meatloaf with beef, pork, veal and olives, and formed it into a burger patty. Presto! Tootsie’s burger ($9.50) was born.

Seasoned with oregano and caramelized onions, topped with mozzarella cheese and served on a toasted rosemary roll with house-made shoe-string fries, the sandwich stops just short of going over the top while still holding on to its Italian origins. “I’m so glad I did it,” says Scordella. “It’s one our top sellers.”

The menu at Tootsie’s changes periodically, but Scordella says there are a few things he has to keep on the menu lest he incite a customer revolt. One of those dishes is the insalata di tonno ($8), a tuna salad with wild arugula, cannellini beans and shaved fennel tossed with a citrusy vinaigrette. It’s fresh, light and very satisfying and deserves to be a fixture on the menu. 

Scordella’s thick-cut, thyme-sprinkled potato chips are a mainstay, too. They’re outstanding.

By all means order the pollone panini ($8.50), a finely breaded fried chicken breast, plump and juicy, laid between a toasted bun with a creamy endive slaw. It’s a simple sandwich expertly done. I say it tops Bake Sale Betty’s famed chicken sandwich in Oakland.
Don’t miss the hot coppa panini ($8), a cold-weather sandwich made with spicy coppa layered with roasted fennel, caramelized onions and provolone cheese on a ciabatta roll.

I didn’t get to try it but Scordella just put a braised-rib sandwich on the menu that comes from his grandmother’s recipe. I’ll be trying that when I go back.

On the glass counter in easy view while you stand in line is an array of fresh pastries, pizzettes ($7.95) and bruschetta ($7.95). The toppings change daily and echo the same simple but delicious refrain that Scordella has established with the sandwiches and salads.

Before opening Tootsie’s two years ago, Scordella cooked in England and at Mario Batali’s outstanding Del Posto in New York. The restaurant just received four stars from The New York Times; when Scordella was there it had just two stars. But when it comes to lunch on the peninsula, Tootsie’s is a star in its own right.