A rose, by another name
Sacramento, CA 95814
The new restaurant Spataro, which does Italian in gleaming and noisy high style, takes its name from its chef, Kurt Spataro. There’s nothing so unusual in that, except that Spataro has been the quieter partner in ventures with Randy Paragary for decades. Now, finally, Spataro’s name is up on the marquee, so that each namesake restaurant bookends the large Paragary restaurant group.
Spataro the restaurant offers a glimpse of the interests of Spataro the chef. He presents a tightly cohesive, seasonal and authentically Italian menu, as well as some obviously personal touches like the charming old Spataro family photos that line the back hall leading to the restrooms. And the chef is also highly visible at the corner of the roaringly busy open kitchen.
The restaurant’s splash and size set it apart on the Sacramento dining scene. Its feel, when you walk in, is a bit over-the-top—like the kind of big, bold place you found in San Francisco in the high-flying 1990s. There’s also a patio to the side, which is where we sat. The restaurant has made an effort to spruce up the rather unpromising rectangular area that comprises the outdoor space, but, with a view of a sliver of L Street to one side and bike racks at the back, the space can’t match the lovely patio at its sister restaurant, Paragary’s. (The rather dreadful easy-listening music that played throughout our meal didn’t help the atmosphere, either.)
The menu is thoroughly up-to-date in its simplicity, its focus on showcasing ingredients and its attention to small details. The house makes its own mozzarella for the caprese salad and notes where and by what method much of the menu’s fish was caught.
Most of the choices on the changing menu have a southern Italian flavor, though on the night of our visit several of the pastas hailed from the north. The pizzas, on the other hand, were simple and authentic-sounding. Most of the bar snacks and antipasti, too, had an authentically Italian flair, from house-cured salami to salt-cod fritters and fritto misto. The bread that arrived after we sat, an olive-oil-imbued focaccia, was wonderful.
We started with the fritters, which are both delectable and the menu’s best deal. For $3.50, you get three golf-ball-sized, perfectly round and crunchy golden balls of flavorful, creamy salt cod, together with smooth garlic mayonnaise. It’s exactly the kind of thing you see in bars in Italy and something you don’t often see on Sacramento menus.
We also tried an order of polpettini, little meatballs, from the antipasti menu. The little trio—an awkward size for a shared appetizer, as they’re small for sharing—sat on a bed of rich polenta, topped with tomato sauce. They weren’t quite as flavorful or interesting as the fritters, and they were better suited to a winter menu than to a hot August night, but meatballs are pretty tough to resist. We also liked the salad of romaine hearts, which was essentially a Caesar, with a lemony, garlicky dressing and crunchy little croutons.
The fish and meat sections of the menu are particularly tempting, so we skipped the pastas and went straight to the main courses. Halibut in acqua pazza (which means “crazy water” in Italian) was my choice. It was accompanied by a few tender clams, swimming in a rich broth with plenty of olive oil, plus capers, sweet cherry tomatoes, a touch of hot pepper and potatoes that the menu claimed would be roasted but that seemed to have been boiled. The craziness of the water (that is, the broth) derives from the heat of the peppers and the other flavorings. This was a relatively restrained interpretation of the dish, but nonetheless tasty—and the halibut itself was a beautiful piece of fish.
My husband wanted the pork chop, which came with peach mostarda and rapini, but the kitchen had run out, so instead he went for wood-roasted lamb. The deeply smoky slices were topped with bits of black olive, the whole braised baby artichokes were perfectly trimmed and delicious, and the server happily substituted mashed potatoes for the roasted ones the menu offered. Service was solicitous and friendly, though occasionally a bit slow on the patio.
The dessert menu offered plenty of temptations, including simple cornmeal biscotti, lemon tarts and our eventual choice, an almond semifreddo with a starburst-patterned garnish of intense, fruity, bitter chocolate sauce and bits of amaretti cookies scattered over the top. Superlatively creamy, with a haunting note of bitter almond, it was the perfect dessert for a warm summer night. With its typically Italian flavor, beautifully executed in American fashion, it also was just the right ending for dinner at Spataro. In this restaurant, the Paragary’s group has added not just a new name, but also a fresh and very welcome flavor to Sacramento’s restaurant scene.