Mill Valley's Frantoio

Walking into Frantoio on a rainy winter evening, I was instantly struck by the heady aroma of truffle oil. It seems like the kind of aromatic ruse realtors go for when they encourage sellers to bake bread or cookies right before an open house. Still, the appeal was irresistible—and had me inclined to order the mystery dish before I even sat down. Apparently, regulars feel that way about a number of items on this restaurant’s Italian menu. After dining here a few times, I understand why. Frantoio’s food satisfies the soul.

The restaurant’s contemporary Tuscan-inspired looks belie its location adjacent to a Holiday Inn Express right off Highway 101. An entryway with a long bar, cocktail area and patio access opens up to a large dining room with an open-beam ceiling.

Raised banquettes along the back wall are like great theater seats from which to watch dining drama unfold—from the notably good-looking patrons mingling at well-spaced wooden tables to the cooks working the wood-fired oven to a glass-enclosed private dining room on one end and a working olive oil press on the other.

The press is not just for looks. Frantoio means “olive press” in Italian, and the restaurant produces its own delicious brand of oil, made on site and incorporated into the menu of antipasti, salad, pizzas, pasta, fish, and meats. Open bottles at each table allow for ample focaccia dipping.

My party starts with a Caesar salad, an easy barometer of a restaurant’s style and level of expertise. This one’s brazen in flavor and perfectly textured, with a dressing that hits the mark so many restaurants miss. We also give in to the truffle-oil temptation, which turns out to be an electric-green spinach velouté soup. Light yet velvety, the vegetable-broth-based puree—kissed with butter and drizzled with that come-hither oil—is an all-around gorgeous dish.

By the time the pappardelle with braised rabbit and wild mushroom ragu arrives, I’m already sold on Frantoio. I don’t even care that the grilled Niman Ranch flank steak with broccoli rabe, grilled polenta and herb-infused jus is ho-hum. Great pasta is hard to come by, and executive chef Duilio Valenti, who is as Italian as his name implies, deserves recognition as one of the Bay Area’s best Italian talents. The wide, delicate pasta ribbons in a hearty sauce are brilliant.

For the first time since I moved here from Napa one year ago I feel as though I have finally found a geographically desirable replacement for my old standby Bistro Don Giovanni. There’s an equally upscale yet unstuffy vibe here that makes dinner feel like a celebratory occasion with a genuine Italian accent—from the chef and his unadulterated cooking style to affable general manager and retired soccer pro Antonio Volpicelli. Only here the wait staff is more attentive and the wine list is a more affordable and concise selection from California and Italy. Desserts, such as the moist gooey-centered tower of chocolate cake (“torre di cioccolato”) and classic tiramisu, are final exclamation points declaring that this restaurant deserves to be on everyone’s must-visit list.

Frantoio, 152 Shoreline Hwy., Mill Valley, 415.289.5777, Dinner nightly, entrées $14–$24.