Occupation: Sales Consultant
Favorite Restaurant: Incontro Ristorante
Reviewed Incontro Ristorante: Tuesday, February 16, 2010
The location is, well, less than desirable. It’s across the street from a KFC, and in the back of the lot, there is a European auto repair shop, which sometimes makes for difficult parking.
But once you enter the restaurant, you are transported to Italy. The warm yellow walls and dark wood are so inviting. Just behind the hostess station there is a tiny three-stool bar, which I doubt is ever used, it’s just too small. All along the front of the restaurant there is a solarium with seating. They wisely frosted the windows with the Incontro design, so you aren’t seeing the KFC and the freeway behind it. On one wall in the solarium, there is a beautiful mural of Tuscany.
The Italian ambiance is helped by Gianni being everywhere -- greeting diners, taking orders, delivering food, and advising on wine. And while there are quite a few "regulars" at Incontro, even our first time there we felt like part of the family. And when we returned several weeks later, Gianni commented that I had cut my hair. I had only been there one other time! His warmth and caring come through in all aspects of the restaurant, from the décor to the food to the wine.
Speaking of wine, I love their wine list. First, it’s all Italian wines, which is fantastic. Why go to an Italian restaurant and order a Californian wine? And the range of prices is great, starting at a very reasonable $18 and going up to $130. Part of the reason the wine is so reasonable is because Gianni doesn’t charge the same level of markup that other restaurants do, because he wants his customers to enjoy wine with dinner without breaking the bank. And if you aren’t that familiar with Italian wines, no worries -- just tell Gianni what you like in a wine, and he will recommend a great pick at a reasonable price.
We ordered a bottle Gerwurztraminer to start, which was lovely. It was not sweet, but floral and drier than one would expect from that grape. The wine was $49. For appetizers, we started with a Caesar salad and the mussels and clams in a spicy tomato sauce. The salad was good; the dressing was a perfect blend of garlic and anchovies with nutty shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano on top. The mussels and clams were great, cooked perfectly and served with a thinly sliced garlic crostini.
We also partook of the amazingly fresh house-made Italian bread, served with a small bowl of the best olive oil. I swear you could taste the field that the olive tree grew in in that oil. It’s actually difficult not to fill up on bread before the entrees…
For dinner we wanted to switch to red wine and asked Gianni for a recommendation. He suggested a new wine, not yet on the menu, which was made from the Barolo grape. It was fantastic and a bargain at $30. My father is very picky about wine and he really enjoyed the Barolo. Also, it was a perfect companion to our all our entrees.
Incontro has a seasonal menu, which means they change their menu a few times a year to match with what is freshest and available. They also always have a weekly specials menu with an appetizer, salad, and three to four entrée choices that typically include a risotto and a fresh fish. I usually order off the specials menu, and have never been disappointed.
For our entrees, my father and I both had the special pasta: house-made pappardelle pasta with shrimp and chickpeas, served in a white wine, sage, and butter sauce. It was simply presented and absolutely wonderful. Incontro makes all their own pasta, and that fresh pasta is so good.
My wife had the spaghetti with spicy sausage in a tomato sauce. It was also served with julienned zucchini so, visually, it blended in with the spaghetti, but it provided a fresh veggie taste with a bit of a bite -- the zucchini was cooked perfectly, as was the pasta. My mother had the special steak, a New York strip cut with salsa verde. Her steak was cooked perfectly, and the salsa verde was fantastic.
For dessert we had to have the panna cotta, it’s our favorite. It’s the perfect consistency with a delicate vanilla flavor and is served with wild preserved cherries Gianni gets from Italy that have an amazing flavor. We also ordered one of the special desserts: profiteroles. They were terrific. The pastry was light and airy, and they were filled with a delicious pastry cream, which was a relief, since we tend to be profiterole traditionalists; not big fans of profiteroles filled with ice or whipped cream. They had a perfect amount of chocolate sauce drizzled on top.
Incontro is a little Italian gem in the not-so-picturesque heart of the San Ramon Valley. They take the best, fresh, seasonal ingredients, prepare them perfectly and serve them expertly.
Tuesday, February 16th 6 pm
Total bill $ 280 with tip, $70 per person
Occupation: Jazz Guitarist
Favorite Restaurant: Butterfly Restaurant
Reviewed Incontro Ristorante: Friday, February 19, 2010
When you call Incontro Ristorante to make a reservation you are greeted with a warm and very authentic, "Buona Sera!" I later found out this is a trademark of Incontro Ristorante, whose owners are both from Italy. Located on one of the main streets in San Ramon -- San Ramon Valley Boulevard -- Incontro was easy to find, and brightly lit with two large Italian flags flying out front. This is a good thing, since the street numbers on all of the other buildings on San Ramon Valley Boulevard are hidden or impossible to see at night. The first thing you notice upon entering the restaurant is a great décor. Incontro had great lighting and seemed very homey and comfortable. One of the nice atmospheric touches is a floral patterned design whose theme runs throughout the restaurant, on the place mats, windows, menus, etc.
I knew from reading the menu that Incontro, which means, "encounter," was a blending of food styles from all over Italy. At this point, I figured it would not be the same type of Italian food most were used to eating. There were no calamari, pesto, or pizza dishes -- not that that’s a bad thing, just wanting to let you know -- also, no cannoli on the dessert menu, which some may think is blasphemous at an Italian restaurant. It didn’t deter me, again just wanting to let you Italian restaurant fans know what to expect or not expect. Having said that, Incontro did have a large selection of dishes, salads, small plates, and main course dishes, which included pasta and non-pasta -- all of which made it difficult to choose as everything sounded wonderful.
I am a fan of soup, so I was intrigued when I spied a split pea and red bell pepper soup on the specials menu. That, combined with the Insalata Rivera, a salad with corn, arugula, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a lemon vinaigrette, made up the first course. The split pea soup was room temperature, which to me seemed a little odd; I would have wanted the soup a little warmer. The split pea and red bell pepper flavors were light, maybe a little too light, but for some that may have been a good thing. The hints of flavor I got were good, but I could have used more. The Insalata Rivera was very good. The lemon vinaigrette was very flavorful and, combined with the roasted corn and fresh-shaved Parmigiano, it made for a good starter. The highlight of the first course, however (and ultimately, in my opinion, the best thing at Incontro), was their fresh, hand-made bread -- simply amazing! The only way I can describe the bread was as an old style Italian loaf -- it wasn’t sour, wasn’t sweet, it was light and flavorful. Tasty!
For the main course, I had to try the gnocchi, which is a dish you’ll find at most every restaurant that calls itself Italian, and I am a big fan of it. The pasta is hand-made daily, and since I also wanted to a pasta dish, I settled on the orecchiette al sugo di maiale. The gnocchi, which was in a fontina cheese and truffle sauce, was good. The gnocchi itself was a little doughier than I like, but the consistency didn’t bother me. The sauce was creamy but light, not overbearing, and not too oily. The orecchiette al sugo di maiale is an ear-shaped pasta dish with red sauce, herbs, and braised pork ragout. The pasta was cooked perfectly, not too soft or too firm. The pork was amazingly tender and had a great braised flavor. I could have used a little bolder taste on the red sauce; again good flavor, but very light, almost bland. For dessert, I tried the panna cotta, another staple Italian restaurant dessert. The wild cherry flavor was good, and the panna cotta itself -- an eggless cream dish -- was good.
My overall experience at Incontro was a good. The décor, atmosphere, and service were all good. The starter items were on the small side, but the portions of the entrees were great. I felt Incontro may have been be a little over priced (compared to restaurants in San Francisco’s North Beach area), but maybe a little overpriced even for a more affluent suburb. The food was good, but a little on the lightly flavored side; I feel the dishes would have been better with a little bolder flavor to them.
Incontro is a little out of my way, but if were out that way and wanted that ambiance, I would try it again. There were several things on the menu I would have tried if I could have. I would also recommend Incontro to someone who found themselves in that area looking for great vibe and good food (especially the bread!)
Occupation: Non-Profit Worker
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Auntie April's Chicken, Waffles & Soul Food
Reviewed Incontro Ristorante: Thursday, February 18, 2010
Having never been to sunny San Ramon, and honestly, not even having any idea where to find it on a map, I was excited to take a culinary road trip into uncharted territory and visit Incontro Ristorante. I certainly am not one to put undue weight on outward appearances, but upon pulling up to Incontro, it looked to be housed in a converted Denny’s, and I was admittedly confused and slightly afraid. Fortunately, as so often happens in these situations, the questionable exterior ultimately led to a warm and pleasant interior. In the case of Incontro, once inside, we were greeted by warm lighting, tasteful décor, and friendly service.
One thing that remained consistent throughout our visit to Incontro was the charm and attentiveness of the waitstaff. Everyone from the host, who was a gregarious fellow with an almost indecipherable Italian accent, to the bussers, who took the time to ask us how we were as they regularly refilled our water glasses, made the experience pleasant and made us feel like welcome guests. Also adding to the atmosphere were the numerous dining parties speaking primarily Italian, which is an obvious thumbs-up when visiting any home-style, ethnic restaurant.
Our first couple of courses at Incontro were pretty impressive. The bread they served was perfectly par-baked, and the olive oil they poured had distinct hints of salt and garlic. These guys must have known that bread, garlic, and salt were the three keys to my heart! Good bread goes a long way, especially when you’re hungry, but we needed more to get our meal started, and so we ordered the involtino di melanzane, a grilled eggplant roll filled with smoked salmon and goat cheese and served in a cream sauce. The portions were small with both my guest and I receiving one roll each, but the flavors melded perfectly, and the cream sauce was a light and flavorful accent.
After ordering a glass each of delicious $6 wine, our entrees came and things began to go slightly south. My guest ordered the orecchiette al sugo di maiale, a small pasta with red wine, herbs, and braised pork ragout. She was happy to find that the ragout was tender and flavorful and also served in more substantial pieces than one usually finds in Italian food. While the portion seemed small at first, as it did with the involtino, she and I couldn’t finish the dish and ended up with a doggie bag.
Perhaps I should have taken a cue from her and ordered a pasta dish, but was instead enticed by the bistecca al tartufo nero, a flat iron steak with black truffle gravy that sounded too good to be true, especially at only $20. Unfortunately, like many things, it was in fact too good to be true, and I was disappointed from the moment it arrived at the table. It was served with roasted potatoes and sautéed squash and Brussels sprouts that looked and tasted like not much thought or effort had been put into them. The steak itself, which I had ordered medium rare, was certainly a strong medium and while at times flavorful, it was certainly overcooked. The truffle sauce was also rather overpowering and often completely disguised the flavor of the steak, which, occasionally, was a good thing.
After the so-so steak experience, we decided to skip dessert, sip some more wine (which is often a personal dessert of choice), and go over our general impressions of Incontro Ristorante. Given the exterior and also the neighborhood, which contained every fast food chain known to man and several auto body shops, Incontro is a total diamond in the rough. They make good, home-style, Italian food served with a smile.
That being said, I felt like a total jerk for taking shots at the food while many folks far more Italian than I could ever be seemed satisfied, but something about the experience just didn’t quite provide me with enough incentive to make the hour-long-with-traffic drive to San Ramon and pay $75 for a two-person meal again.