A little more zing

Volturno Ristorante & Bar

2215 Del Paso Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95815

(916) 646-1892

Volturno’s—whoa-ho-ho-ho. Finally, an Italian restaurant named after the Dean Martin classic. OK, so the song is actually “Volare.” A good story doesn’t always have to be true.

Volturno’s, the name of a river in south-central Italy, is victimized by its location on Del Paso Boulevard, a well-kept brick building near the intersection with El Camino Avenue that, for 40 years, was the Sundowner Casino and, most recently, a taqueria. Owner Mike Pontarelli hopes a yet-to-be-delivered sign will draw more customers, the initial lack thereof causing a reduction in hours open.

Lots of lire has been laid out—along with some elbow grease by Pontarelli—to make Volturno’s dining area feel like an Italian piazza. A large fireplace beckons. A fountain splashes as four compass-point streams of water cascade into its basin. Red-tiled eaves jut from just below the clouded, blue-sky ceiling. Louis Prima warbles his classics “Angelina” and “Felicia No Capicia” from the stereo system. The red-clothed tables sport jars of Parmesan and red pepper flakes. A spacious, well-stocked bar lies just “inside” from the piazza.

Would that there was as much investment in the food. Carrots and tomatoes have no business in a Caesar salad. The same green salad served with Italian dressing for $4.95, now plopped with Caesar dressing for $7.50, does not a Caesar salad make—nor is there any Romano cheese, as promised by the menu. As for the mixed greens, maybe ditch the croutons and liven it up with some toasted pine nuts and a generous sprinkle of thyme?

Every dish other than the vongole could use more seasoning. The red sauce on the penne accompanying the $12.95 steak sandwich is bland, as is the sandwich itself. Nor does Volturno’s stock A1 to sauce things up. For the sandwich: a blanket of caramelized onions, some sage leaves. A bolder aioli, perhaps. As for the red sauce: more onions, more oregano, more basil, more garlic, more salt.

The generously portioned vongole is a little cheese-heavy, but the garlic mounts a muscled counterattack that ratchets down the cheesiness. With its healthy contingent of clams, this is the best of the sampled entrees. But wait, there’s more.

At a nearby table, a group of four has ventured up from Elk Grove to sample Volturno’s fare. They have seen Pontarelli on Channel 31 touting the Zuppa Volturno and want to check it out. They tell him the soup is killer. As it should be, it’s Mom’s recipe: a combination of beef, sausage, potatoes, carrot, onions and celery with strong herbs served over a piece of Italian bread and provolone. In short, something worthy of increasing one’s carbon footprint from a size 4 stiletto to a pair of Dr. Martens by driving up from Elk Grove—hopefully in one car.

In fairness to Volturno’s, the offerings of the pranzo menu are not as extensive as the cena menu. The linguine di mare holds promise—shrimp, squid and clams in a white sauce. So does the shrimp fra diavolo, because of the inherent spiciness of the recipe. But my visits are at lunchtime.

A good sign is each visit the place is busier. The first time it’s quiet. Too quiet. Now, besides the table of Elk Grovians, there’s another eight folks. Crowded, no, but a step up from me and Genie, the genial waitress, spending quality time together as we did previously.

To employ the cliché legislators use to describe their incomplete bills, Volturno’s is a “work in progress.” Look to the right of the entrance. There’s a spiffy wine closet with a grill door emblazoned with “RV”—presumably Ristorante Volturno and not recreational vehicle—but the wine lies on the floor, still in boxes. Where Volturno goes from here depends exclusively on the food. Like Enotria Café & Wine Bar, if there is something worth coming to Del Paso for, people will come to Del Paso. But it has to be more than just killer soup.