Sometimes you get more than you expect.
We’ve always enjoyed Half Moon Bay, with its cool weather and meandering bluff trails. Even though, not so long ago, the downtown was on the verge of shabby, it was still a fun day. Now, however, Main Street is on the verge of too touristy, with shops and ice cream reflecting less of the long history of the town.
But that isn't what caught us by surprise.
After we found a parking place late on a Saturday afternoon, we wandered up and down the several blocks that host plenty of boutiques and restaurants, and even a bookstore. Our first hint of something special, though, was the Olive Crush, a store that focuses on freshly made olive oil and vinegar, with high-end dried pasta as an added bonus. Given the agricultural nature of the area – Half Moon Bay, after all, is known for its produce and pumpkins – a store like the Olive Crush made perfect sense.
Finally, however, we crossed Main Street to Fattoria e Mare, our dinner destination, looking forward to a cocktail and a nice meal to top off a fun weekend excursion. And that was when our expectations were blown away.
So remember, we’re on a street filled with tourist-friendly stores, hawking whatever folks with disposable income are interested in buying. And like shopping malls, those kinds of people usually aren’t there for fine dining, or an exceptional dinner experience. Unless they go to Fattoria e Mare.
“Fattoria” means “farm” in Italian, and more obviously, “mare” means “sea,” so chef Pablo Estrada makes it clear from the start what the focus will be. To narrow it even further, Estrada wants his restaurant to reflect the rustic yet refined cuisine of Venice and Northern Italy, from its airy and impressive interior to the offerings on the menu.
Of course, being on the coast of San Mateo County gives Estrada access to local farms and their lush produce, which is highlighted in the perfectly balanced Pescadero Farms butter lettuce salad. Estrada takes the surprisingly flavorful butter lettuce and mixes it with fresh peaches, local goat cheese, walnuts and a vinaigrette to create one of the best salads we’ve had in years – if ever.
The focaccia bread comes straight out of the pizza oven in a rectangular block, and cutting it open reveals the contrast between the perfectly crisped crust and the soft, tasty interior. Oh, and dipping that bread in the spicy sauce that bathes the iron-roasted Pei mussels is a temptation hard to resist, even with much more food to come.
Next up came breaded squash blossoms, freshly picked, and lightly seasoned so that the taste of the breading and blossoms both came through. The malfade di nero, with its all-black squid ink sauce, was spicy and salty, but the star of the pastas is the incredibly rich, and even more delicious, cacio e pepe. This classic dish gets an added dash of showmanship as it’s mixed tableside on top of a wheel of pecorino, which is scraped into the pasta and pepper just before serving.
And yes, there’s more. The branzino was also part of the show, as it’s filleted tableside, allowing it to be eaten at just the right temperature. And it’s cooked at just the right temperature as well, as the skin is crispy but the delicate white fish – often overcooked – is still moist and flavorful.
At that point, we were ready to waddle out to the car and head home, but the dessert menu featured one of my favorites, pineapple upside down cake, and not surprisingly, it did not disappoint. Again, a perfect crust complemented the texture of the rest of the dish, which was topped with a citrusy gelato.
No, we did not expect one of the best meals of our summer in touristy Half Moon Bay, but that’s exactly what we got at Fattoria e Mare. And even though it’s a long drive from Walnut Creek, we’ll be back there soon.