A show-stopping restaurant brings pizzazz to Alamo.
So you want to open a restaurant?
Bob Gallo has impressive business credentials but had no restaurant experience prior to opening Izzy’s Place. He’s refreshingly honest about the challenging start.
Steep learning curve: “Boy, we made so many mistakes. How you recover is what really matters.”
The glamour: “I was working seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. Cleaning floors, washing dishes, vacuuming … ”
Keeping your day job: “One morning, I was so tired, I backed into the garage door.”
At the end of the day: “The big challenge once you get all the nails pounded in and all the permits taken care of is finding the right people.”
Scene 1: As my date and I are led to a central table, I see chef Joe Panarello—a veteran of Vegas and Los Angeles restaurants—through a wall of glass, directing a busy kitchen crew.
I’m impressed but a bit disappointed we aren’t seated at one of the prime burgundy booths lining the walls or at one of the intimate tables set beneath a triptych of rolling Italian vineyards. But as dinner unfolds, the action swirls around us, and we know we’re right where we should be: Hollywood.
Close-up: Twisted, crispy octopus—its tentacle tips charred black—debuts on a warm salad of shaved fingerling potatoes bright with sherry vinegar and paprika oil. Surprisingly, my squeamish date applauds at her first bite; the notoriously chewy meat is rendered tender through sous vide, a French low-temperature technique favored by Panarello.
At our server’s cue, we enjoy our two starters one at a time to fully appreciate Panarello’s layering of flavors. Take his nuanced harvest salad: a lush dressing of dates and cider vinegar softening the bitter edge of arugula, and rings of dried apple bringing concentrated flavor and a crispy counterpoint to the ripe fruit.
Leading men: Co-owner Bob Gallo is an avid wine collector, and Izzy’s’ premium offerings by the glass are coyly called the Sweet 16. (If you must start with a cocktail, there’s a Dirty Dozen.) Our six-ounce mini carafes of Cab and Pinot Grigio (those 16 options come in one- and three-ounce pours as well) are as sexy as they are expensive.
The list of bottles is extensive, designed by renowned sommelier Fred Dexheimer, who was flown in from New York. Neither Gallo nor partner David Waitrovich, both Alamo residents and financial gurus at Merrill Lynch, had any restaurant experience going in. But we’ve been well served tonight by a staff overseen by Nico Zimmerman, who took over as general manager a few weeks into Izzy’s’ challenging start.
The backstory: Izzy’s has a humble heritage. The name is Gallo’s grandfather’s, and the menu features Panarello’s grandma’s meatballs. The house-made pasta dishes can be enjoyed in half-servings; there are a half-dozen pizzas made with Grandma’s chewy crust recipe; and a homey and affordable Sunday dinner menu is in the works.
Climax: As stylish and fashionable as our entrées of sous vide bistro steak and seared Skuna Bay salmon may read, carrots and cauliflower keep Panarello’s cooking humble. (OK, the carrots are baby whites, and the cauliflower is served both mashed and as a crackery garnish.)
The salmon is unbelievably good, cooked to a translucent medium rare and served atop roasted spaghetti squash rich with buttery juices. (The entrées are served family style to share, and my date dives deep into my half of the fish.)
I’m content with a good portion of the steak, which is pink from edge to edge and enriched with a classic reduction of red wine, aromatics, and veal stock. Besides, there’s no danger I might be going hungry; Panarello also bakes his own breads, and we blow through the airy ciabatta.
Happy ending: Finally, we melt into a rack of five ice-cream cones: three golf-sized scoops of house-churned gelato and two of seasonal sorbet. They’re balanced atop fragile tuile cones and lend whimsy to a seriously good meal. The cocoa-rich bittersweet chocolate torte with tangy fig compote, however, is a decidedly adult pleasure.
Epilogue: This is my third visit, and Panarello’s cooking has become better and more consistent as the concept at Izzy’s becomes clearer. I’ve seen prices drop, and the staff gel and relax, giving the neighborhood-sounding place in Izzy’s Place more currency.
But with Panarello’s lustrous style and the dining room’s glamorous glow, Izzy’s isn’t designed for a bread-and-butter family audience. The restaurant is better at making diners feel like stars. Witness the golden package of housemade truffles handed out like Oscars to the ladies as they leave.
Contact: 3160 Danville Blvd., Alamo (925) 820-1711, izzysplacealamo.com. Hours: Dinner daily. Price: Appetizers $10–$15; pizzas $13–$18; entrées $14–$36. Alcohol: Full bar.