To give you a preview of some of the restaurants participating in our third annual Peninsula Restaurant Week May 19-27, we’re speaking to the restaurateurs behind local eateries. This is the second interview in this year's series; the first was a Q&A with Geoffroy Raby, owner of Cuisinett Bistro & Market in downtown San Carlos.
For more information about Peninsula Restaurant Week, go to peninsularestaurantweek.com.
Sandra Ferer spent her career working in the mining and explosives industries before retiring into managing Ristorante Carpaccio, a Menlo Park Italian restaurant that she co-owns with her husband Aaron Ferer. During our chat, she paused a number of times to pick up the restaurant phone, warmly greeting regulars and asking people making reservations about the occasions that would be bringing them through the restaurant's doors.
Open five days a week for dinner and takeout lunches, the eatery offers an array of Italian dishes, from branzino to zeppole, including its eponymous carpaccio and pasta carbonara. It also has an extensive drinks menu and well-stocked bar, with wine, more than 50 bourbons and 32 tequila varieties available, plus beer from Livermore-based brewery Shadow Puppet Brewing Company.
For Restaurant Week, Ristorante Carpaccio is offering a $25 special: housemade gnocchi served with Bolognese or vodka sauce and Parmesan, plus house salad and minestrone soup.
I spoke with Sandra about keeping a restaurant running through the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant's namesake dish, and the outlook for Menlo Park's dining scene. This story has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Peninsula Foodist: Start by telling me, big picture, what's the story of Carpaccio? How did you end up in the restaurant world?
Sandra Ferer: In 1988, my husband sold his business with Budget Rent-a-Car and was looking for restaurants to get into. He found this one (which) had only been here for about three months. My husband came and looked at it, bought it, and it's been here since then, with the same menu since 1988.
I worked in the mining industry my entire career. I worked with Rio Tinto, which is the world's largest mining company, and then I worked with Dyno Nobel, the second-largest explosives company, as vice president of global and strategic accounts. I traveled the world negotiating explosives contracts. When I retired from the mining industry, I came down here to just understand the restaurant a little better and see what was happening, and the two managers that we had here ultimately retired. The timing was good – about the time they were retiring, COVID hit, and I needed to be here full time. So I made that adjustment, and my husband then came full time as well.
People have been coming here for generations because it's a popular local restaurant and they want to see the same things. About three years after he bought this restaurant, we had it redesigned by Pat Kuleto, a very famous restaurant designer.
The bar is extremely popular. We have the regular seats, and we've had to put in another row with little countertops so that people can sit there. It's just a very, very friendly, very safe bar that people come to. We have many regulars at the bar and in the restaurant celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. We watch generations of kids grow up and then bring their own kids here. It's just been a restaurant that people feel comfortable in. They see their neighbors here. So we try to keep the restaurant as much the same as possible and yet introduce new concepts that are subtle.
Peninsula Foodist: What are some examples of that?
Sandra Ferer: Our specials. We now focus on a wide variety of fresh fish. We try to make them very healthy. We put healthy sauces on top, not cream sauces and things like you can find on the regular menu. We've got an alley. It's a wonderful extension of the restaurant. COVID was hard on everyone, and we wanted when people came to the restaurant to feel comfortable, so we bought things like white flowers to place on tables that we couldn't serve during the shutdown. We designed the alley in such a way that diners would feel as comfortable outside as inside.
It's very important for people to come here and be able to enjoy (themselves). They can bring their dogs, they could have a business meeting, they could celebrate an engagement. It's just a place that people enjoy coming to, and (coming) back to over and over again.
Peninsula Foodist: You mentioned how COVID has been really hard on restaurants. Tell me more about your experience.
Sandra Ferer: Those of us that have survived are really looking at modifying our business model. How do we survive? What do people want? It's a slow recovery at best. We branched out into other areas such as more to-go (food).
We work hard at doing quality control for food. We work very hard on our service. Our front of house staff have been here, many of them for 15, 20, 25 years. They know our customers and they're absolute professionals. In looking at the business model, we're just all looking at what works and what doesn't, and sliding into that lane until it picks back up again, whenever and however that looks.
I don't know that we'll ever go back to pre-COVID dining, so we just have to find the solution now, and the best way to deliver to our customers and potential customers, and attract people to Menlo Park. We need to bring people into Menlo Park to see what's here.
Peninsula Foodist: What was the process like of adding the alley dining area?
Sandra Ferer: The alley came about because during COVID, restaurants were given outside dining spots in parklets. We don't have (parking) spots on Crane Street, so there were no parklets available. We were just trying to put tables on the sidewalk, which didn't work very well.
One of the council members came and said, "Would you be interested in taking part of the alley?" And we said, "Absolutely, yes. When can we do so?"
We greatly appreciate that opportunity. It wasn't a good time to spend money, but we wanted to be sure that our customers felt as good outside as inside, so we made it a beautiful space. It has awnings and European artwork. We have music. We have beautiful new tables and chairs and heaters and planter boxes that are filled with live plants, lemon trees, all kinds of things. It's a space that people feel very comfortable in – they bring their dogs, they bring their grandchildren. Or it's a great place for a business dinner – we can set it up so that there's lots of privacy. In the evening, when the sun goes down a little bit, it takes on this golden glow out there that is really beautiful. What we found last summer was as the weather got warmer, the reservations would fill up faster on the outside than the inside. People love dining outside.
Peninsula Foodist: We recently did a story about people's favorite dishes on the Peninsula, and one person's favorite was the carpaccio from Carpaccio's. What makes it special?
Sandra Ferer: We hear from people that do travel quite a bit, but have tried it elsewhere, and they come back for this (carpaccio). We have to do that one right.
Peninsula Foodist: Are there any menu items you'd highlight besides the carpaccio?
Sandra Ferer: Our chicken and veal dishes are extremely popular – I bet we have seven different ways of doing chicken and veal. Our fish menu is exceptional. We have fish on a regular menu that's been there forever. Our calamari, chicken and veal are all pounded very thin and the dishes come out exceptional.
We have a wood-burning oven for our pizzas and we've expanded our pizza items. We have some salads that are absolutely wonderful. All of our food is made in house. There are very few exceptions to that. Our tiramisu is absolutely wonderful. We have zeppole, an Italian beignet that we make to order. Our minestrone soup is very popular. We have vegan and vegetarian and gluten-free options. We have several to-go and delivery partners so that you can just pick up here at the restaurant yourself at the same price.
Peninsula Foodist: Can you tell me more about what you have planned for Restaurant Week?
Sandra Ferer: We did an enticing menu at a good price, better than you would typically get. But mostly, I saw an opportunity for restaurants that have survived COVID to get their names all out there and show who is on the Peninsula still. I think people don't travel as far anymore. There's a lot of to-gos, and so it's good to see what's in easily drivable distances to be able to experience different things.
Peninsula Foodist: How do you feel about the Menlo Park dining scene, and the Peninsula dining scene more broadly?
Sandra Ferer: Menlo Park is an area that is reaching out, trying to bring in new residents. There's a lot of new apartments and condos and things being built to attract new people. And we need that – I'm all for it. I think there's about five new restaurants coming in. Any new business that comes into the area brings additional vibrancy. If we can put or keep Menlo Park on the map and in people's minds — which I think this will help do — that's very good for all of us here in Menlo Park.