FREMONT -- The first time I walked into Massimo's, its elegant decor reminded me of stylish restaurants I had seen only in San Francisco or Manhattan.
A short while later, its comfort food brought back fond memories of visits to my grandmother's rural kitchen.
That the Italian steakhouse can conjure such visceral -- and sometimes contradictory -- images partly explains its success over the past four decades.
I especially like how the Fremont restaurant seems familiar, but avoids cliche. Those expecting checkered tablecloths, Rat Pack posters and Perry Como on the stereo will be disappointed.
With its burgundy vinyl booths, low lighting and speakers playing soft R&B tunes, Massimo's offers an appealing, Scorsese-esque ambience that feels special even before you've seen a menu.
Sure, the eatery tests rookie diners by asking to them walk near a doughnut shop and a liquor store in a strip mall to get there. But once inside Massimo's, rewards await.
Its menu -- stocked with dependable favorites such as spaghetti Bolognese, veal piccata, linguine vongole and many others -- reads like a greatest hits collection of Italian-American staples.
For me, that's a compliment. I liken its wide-ranging but conventional menu to a well-made James Bond movie. You have seen it before and might know exactly what's coming next, but you still have a lot of fun when it arrives.
One recent visit, I enjoyed a healthy portion of fettuccine carbonara and a glass of pinot grigio -- a pairing that has a sommelier cursing somewhere, I'm certain.
Sure, a culinary revolution it was not, but it was my version of soul food, and I left feeling just a bit better about the world.
How could I not, with the eatery's crowd-pleasing plates and genial staff making me feel like a long-lost brother? That warm combination has garnered Massimo's a loyal following since its founder, the late Bill Rinetti, opened it in 1976.
The elder Rinetti died in 2002, but the restaurant stayed within the East Bay family. The founder's son, also known as Bill Rinetti, now co-owns the steakhouse with his mother, Marie, who sometimes serves as the dining room hostess.
"We're old-school in that we treat our guests as if they're part of our family," Bill Rinetti said. They treat their staff the same way, which is perhaps why some waiters still work there after more than 20 years.
They close on Sundays because that's a day customarily set aside for families to visit, laugh and, of course, dine together during hourslong meals.
The Rinettis have carried out that tradition in the East Bay since 1906, when family patriarch, Massimo Rinetti, left Italy's Piedmont region for California. Like many an immigrant, he turned hard labor into a piece of the American dream, working as a train porter to buy a San Leandro home, where he raised a family with his wife, Florida.
Decades later, Massimo's grandson Bill paid tribute to his immigrant grandfather, naming his small business after him while pursuing his own dream.
"Dad had looked at different cities for a while, but then he came home one day and said, 'It's Fremont,'" said Bill Rinetti, who grew up in Oakland. "I don't think we'd even heard of Fremont at the time."
The Rinettis started slow, opening the eatery in a cozy spot near the corner of Mowry Avenue and Farwell Drive, when Fremont was a much smaller, less expensive place.
As the city grew, so did Massimo's. Several times it expanded and underwent renovations, retaining its neighborhood feel while evolving into one of the city's few true power-lunch spots. Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty reportedly wooed A's owner Lew Wolff there nearly a decade ago, convincing him to make the team's ill-fated attempt to move to Fremont.
Yet Massimo's refrains from being too hoity-toity. It has held comedy nights and other theme entertainment events to attract new, hipper crowds. It also hosts special occasions -- anniversaries, bar mitzvahs and wedding receptions -- held by longtime customers.
New ventures aside, Massimo's thrives because it remains the Tri-City area's go-to spot for very good Italian-American food.
"I keep coming back here to socialize with all the friends we've made through the years," Marie Rinetti said.
Out & About is a monthly column that highlights the wildly underrated entertainment scene in the Tri-City and greater Hayward areas.
The Fremont restaurant-bar is in the Los Arboles Shopping Center at 5200 Mowry Ave., Suite M, It is open for dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and for lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. For details, call 510-792-2000 or go to www.massimos.com.