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Chronicle Review

DINING
Stella Alpina Osteria worthy successor to Alpine Inn

- Dave Murphy, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005

I'll bet some variation of this conversation has taken place dozens of times during the past month:

"I went to this terrific new restaurant in Burlingame. Good food, friendly service ..."

"What's its name?"

"Um ... um ... It's where the Alpine Inn used to be."

A forgettable name is the cross that Stella Alpina Osteria has to bear. But business is already booming at the 2-month-old restaurant, a block from Burlingame Avenue at the corner of Primrose Road and Chapin Avenue.

What people's brains might forget, their stomachs are remembering. And they know the difference between "um" and "yum."

Quite simply, Stella Alpina Osteria is one of the best places to open on the Peninsula in a long time.

One reason the Alpine Inn lasted 27 years is that Werner and Hedy Bertram ran it so well -- he was in the kitchen; she was in the dining room -- and she was good at remembering people and making them feel welcome. Owners Matteo and Alisa Ferrari have the same roles at Stella, and she has a terrific knack not only for greeting people warmly and remembering them, but recalling conversations.

To ease the transition for regulars who need their Alpine Inn fix, the Ferraris' menu includes culinary methadone -- a few dishes that the old place served, such as Wienerschnitzel and fondue -- but most of the cuisine is from northern Italy, the chef's native country.

Before opening Stella, Matteo Ferrari spent more than 20 years at restaurants in Tuscany, Paris, London and the Bay Area, as well as with Princess Cruises. The Ferraris also own a catering business, "Matteo in your kitchen."

The Ferraris have updated the look of the space, adding a three-stool wine bar, painting the walls a warm mustard color, adding hardwood floors, taking down the curtains to let more light in, and opening up a cozy corner patio.

The decor comes with one caveat: When you combine wood, glass and lots of diners, you get noise. Lots of it. So if you want intimate conversation instead of a festive feeling, request a table on the patio, which is heated and nicely separated from pedestrians and most of the street noise.

As for the food, your odds are good even if you close your eyes and point to the menu. Polenta with mild Italian sausage and wild mushroom ragu ($8) is my favorite appetizer, with the polenta nicely tempering the intensity of the ragu.

But you also can't go wrong with the Alpina platter ($12) of prosciutto, salami and several other meats, plus delicately marinated artichoke hearts, nor with the wild mushroom risotto cakes ($8), topped with truffle oil and shaved Parmigiano over arugula, with a lemony twist.

A meal-size Caesar salad with prawns ($15) is also good. The shaved Parmesan and garlic croutons -- plus anchovies, if you want them -- are good touches, but the dressing is the star, with enough ambition to make you appreciate it, but not so much tang that you wince. The six butterflied prawns nicely complement the dressing's intensity.

The biggest letdown during our three visits was the insalata all'Alisa ($8), a mix of butter lettuce, red onions, Gorgonzola, toasted walnuts and strawberries in an apricot-citrus vinaigrette. The Gorgonzola was the only ingredient that came to play.

While we're picking nits, one time our server overlooked the special salad we had ordered and brought the free, unremarkable lettuce-only salad that comes with most entrees. On another occasion, the cannelloni ($14) was only lukewarm. But both mistakes were fixed quickly and professionally.

Those goofs underline another reason Stella is succeeding where so many new restaurants fail: Its servers are professional and plentiful. They can use a little more polish, but they are so friendly and helpful that they enhance the dining experience. Even on a weeknight when the place was packed and two servers were absent, the rest of the staff came through with aplomb.

And that cannelloni was well worth the short wait. It succeeded where the insalata all'Alisa failed, with its spinach and ricotta fillers managing to share the stage, complemented with marinara and bechamel.

The risotto changes often, but the one I had with saffron, mussels and prawns ($19) was stellar. The rice base was rich and intense, the mussels delicate and the prawns top-notch.

Osso buco ($26), a frequent special, came strongly recommended by our waiter; no argument here. The traditionally made savory veal shanks are fork tender in a hearty sauce, complemented by mascarpone polenta.

Other entrees we tried -- chicken cacciatore ($18), beef stroganoff ($19) and gamberi fra diavola ($20), prawns sauteed in a slightly spicy mix of tomatoes, shallots and garlic -- weren't quite up to the osso buco, cannelloni or risotto, but were still good.

Desserts (all $7), are also good bets, including the house-made tiramisu with a nice light sponge cake and pleasant balance of coffee and chocolate. Generous portions of moist chocolate bread pudding and a warm apple tartlet are also good.

So far, the Ferraris seem to know exactly what they're doing. They have made the place with the forgettable name into a memorable experience. I'll be watching eagerly to see how this promising new restaurant evolves.

E-mail Dave Murphy at dmurphy@sfchronicle.com .

Stella Alpina Osteria 401 Primrose Road (at Chapin Avenue), Burlingame; (650) 347-5733. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Wednesday- Saturday, 5-9 Sunday. Beer and wine. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Moderately easy street parking.
Overall: TWO STARS
Food: TWO STARS
Service: TWO AND A HALF STARS
Atmosphere: TWO STARS
Prices: $$$
Noise Rating: BOMB.

Pluses: Friendly service and some very good dishes, including cannelloni, risotto and an osso buco special. Minuses: Very noisy at times.

RATINGS KEY

FOUR STARS: Extraordinary
THREE STARS: Excellent
TWO STARS: Good
ONE STAR: Fair
(box): Poor.
$ Inexpensive: entrees $10 and under
$$ Moderate: $11-$17 $$$
Expensive: $18-$24
$$$$ Very Expensive: more than $25

Prices based on main courses. When entrees fall between these categories, the prices of appetizers help determine the dollar ratings..

ONE BELL: Pleasantly quiet (under 65 decibels)
TWO BELLS: Can talk easily (65-70)
THREE BELLS: Talking normally gets difficult (70-75)
FOUR BELLS: Can only talk in raised voices (75-80)
BOMB: Too noisy for normal conversation (80+). Chronicle critics make every attempt to remain anonymous. All meals are paid for by the Chronicle. Star ratings are based on a minimum of three visits. Ratings are updated continually based on a least one revisit.