When you see the word polpette on an Italian menu in the Bay Area, there is a 99% chance that it refers to a dish of miniature meatballs.
Except at Térun in Palo Alto, where the polpette don't even have meat. Chef Kristyan Dangelo's eggp;ant polpette reside at the triple intersection of meatballs, baba ghanoush, and arancini (the fried risotto balls that are a common snack in Italy), reflecting an upbringing in Puglia, the heel of Italy's "boot."
As seems to always be the case with Italy (or most any other country, really), the best recipes come from Mom. Since she knows best, there's no reason for a chef to mess around with the perfect prelude to a beautiful meal, full of house-made pastas and puffy, slightly charred pizzas.
The polpette process begins by baking the eggplant, then pureeing it to create a base very similar to baba ghanoush. Instead of tahini sauce, a mix of breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, parsley, and whole eggs is added. Everything gets rolled into tiny balls, which are baked and then deep fried. These polpette have a beautifully smoky, earthy character that defeats any deep-fried boredom.
Crisp on the exterior, with a creamy purée in the center, these bites pair superbly with a Negroni. (Who wants nuts with an apertivo cocktail when you can have these?) However, Dangelo's luscious sauce transforms the polpette from a bar snack to a full-on appetizer. As with croque monsieur, it's not the ham or the bread that makes it such a treat -- it's the gooey cheese and dense, creamy béchamel.
That's essentially what the sauce is here. Dangelo mixes béchamel (flour, milk, parmesan cheese, and a not subtle amount of butter) with pungent taleggio cheese, finishing with a touch of truffle oil to keep such a heavy sauce vibrant. Combined with the polpette's eggplant filling, the sauce has so much character I could have been fooled into thinking it was a cheesy, truffle-infused polenta.
Inside the 13-month-old Térun you'll find animated Italian expats holding court and munching on antipasti platters next to Stanford students on date night. Start with the polpette and the beautiful grilled romaine and avocado. Then move onto cavatelli with beef stew or pizza topped with nduja and zucchini and you've got a meal that competes with what your mother might have cooked for you if you too had grown up in Puglia.
Térun, 448 South California Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 600-8310. Terunpizza.com