Beyond the business lunch

Il Fornaio

400 Capitol Mall
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 446-4100

I have this inexplicable attachment to the game show $20,000 Pyramid. (It’s just Pyramid now, but back in my day, the maximum prize was $20,000, so that’s what they called it.) In the extreme heat of the excruciatingly dull valley summers of childhood, my siblings and I would play our own home version. We didn’t need a board or cards or dice. We just used words. As an adult, I’ve found it an effective way to communicate.

Like, I’m thinking of a restaurant: “Italian chain. … Less fun than Buca di Beppo. … A place where you might hold a business lunch. … A place you’d take your parents for dinner.”

If you screamed, “Il Fornaio!” you’d be right.

If I’ve been to Il Fornaio once, I feel like I’ve been there a thousand times—to the one on Lorton Avenue in Burlingame, to the one on Cowper Street in Palo Alto, to the one in Corte Madera’s Town Center and, most often, to the one on Battery Street in San Francisco. Most of these visits were casual business affairs: an office birthday, an interview and dozens of get-to-know-you meetings with people I did not want to get to know. In the midst of these sufferable meetings was antipasto this, lobster-ravioli that and endless processions of baked goods. Been there; done that.

But just when you think you know what a restaurant has to offer after the 20th visit, you learn something new! So, on an unlikely Saturday night, when all was quiet on the Capitol Mall (as it generally is), a skeptical friend and I danced into Il Fornaio for the latest Festa Regionale—the regional side menu featured two weeks of every month.

To be precise, Festa Regionale is not new. The restaurant actually started it in 1995. For a bakery-cum-restaurant that has opened shop in nearly every well-to-do city in five Western states throughout a 20-year period, it’s a nice way to keep things fresh and tied to the restaurant’s origins in Italy.

On a full moon, we entered Calabria, the regional toe of the Italian boot. On our cheat-sheet menu, we learned that the region adores spiciness and simple ingredients. In Calabria, we were told, livestock is scarce, but swordfish is plentiful. Olives, tomatoes and peppers are in; rich desserts are out. Goat meat is a tradition appearing in a multitude of dishes, as is a particular type of mild cheese—caciocavallo, or “cheese horse” as it translates. (No, it doesn’t actually come from a horse.)

Our culinary tour guide was chef and partner Fiorenzo Trunzo. Mind you, we didn’t meet Fiorenzo in person. He runs the Il Fornaio kitchen in Henderson, Nev. But because he is the creative force behind Festa Calabria, we learned about him anyway. In his picture (courtesy of the cheat sheet), he is a youngish- looking man with brazen eyebrows and a precise goatee. His teeth are prominent, his hairline receding. He looks like a man who would have big hands. The sheet shared telling tidbits like, “Fiorenzo continued his studies in architecture but never really left the kitchen.” Good for you, Fiorenzo! And good for us.

In the expansive grand ballroom of a dining room, we were attended by white-jacketed waiters—all of a doo-wopping age. We ordered a starter of the tunnu cunzato, a spicy ahi tuna tartar served on a bed of cucumbers and tomatoes. Tuna tartar is typically raw, marinated, sashimi-grade tuna that’s cubed or chopped and mixed with tomatoes, shallots, capers, chives and the like. This one was primarily mixed with diced cucumber in a mustard-based dressing and presented in a puck-like fashion. Attractive enough, the dish disappointed, being rather warm but with no standout flavors.

The disappointment did not last, however. After a bit of a wait, we were served our entrees. The lasagna alla Calabrese, which the menu described as a dish Fiorenzo’s grandmother made on special occasions, was an entirely novel lasagna dish, like nothing I’d seen or tasted. Fresh pasta with a meat ragu, ham, hardboiled eggs and cheese were not neatly layered in the typical fashion. Rather, they were loose and free-form, presenting something like an anti-establishment lasagna. The pasta and ham were oh-so-tender, the cheese was minimal, and the egg—both yolk and white—added unexpected flavors and textures to the already surprising dish.

Equally interesting was the involtino di spada—bundled swordfish—filled with shrimp, pecorino, caciocavallo, almonds and garlic. The combination was complex. Bite after bite, it was a puzzle to see which flavor would come out and when. The accompanying spicy eggplant and peppers, practically limp with flavor, hit a strong counter note.

Because these dishes were not light, we had to pass on dessert, which would have been another new delight to discover. Whatever Il Fornaio is in its regular life—vanilla or not—Festa Regionale does offer something new and inviting to try 12 times out of the year.