Buon alimento!

Never mind the Sacramento-Los Angeles rivalry, although I’d be the first to give Rick Fox my vote as the Laker most deserving of an uppercut to the jaw. (And is there anything lower or more pathetic than Shaq dissing Doug Christie’s wife?) More to the point, though, is the inferiority complex engendered by the cultural attractions of San Francisco. You can argue with little fear of rebuttal that San Francisco has better restaurants, music, theater and shopping than Sacramento.

But, after a childhood spent trotting the globe and then a five-year stint in the Monterey Bay area, I retain an affection for this burg that’s tempered by a clear-eyed accounting of its shortcomings. Sacramento has a southern charm enhanced by California edginess and the happy fact of not actually being in the South, with its problematic rigidity of thought. You can ride your bike for miles down the river; come home, dress up and hit the streets of Midtown for tapas, experimental theater and cappuccinos; and then sit out on your porch. It’s the best of both worlds.

One welcome trend is that brave pioneers are venturing into the town’s neighborhoods to open eateries. If there is one thing I miss about the Bay Area, it’s the interesting little neighborhood joints you can find on every other corner. In Sacramento, unless you live in Midtown, those opportunities are few and far between. And that’s why places like Cafe Milazzo are so welcome. Tucked into a tiny shopping center and commercial strip on Folsom Boulevard at 48th Street, the restaurant is a boon for East Sacramento residents looking for a decent meal close to home.

And they have responded. On a recent Monday evening, traditionally a slow day for restaurants, a steady stream of customers kept two servers busy in the small cafe. Although the space is compact, it is designed well, to give the impression of three separate dining areas, one of which is slightly elevated and lined with a railing. Framed family photographs and rebar sculptures provide visual interest.

Although the menu at Cafe Milazzo is a fairly standard interpretation of Italian-American standards such as chicken Parmesan and spaghetti and meatballs, the restaurant has an almost bewildering array of nightly specials to choose from, as well. Special mention must be made of the service, which is efficient, knowledgeable and disarmingly friendly.

In keeping with the feel of a neighborhood trattoria, the restaurant was well decorated for Halloween—a little bit of whimsy rarely seen in so-called serious eateries. Certainly, the small dish of chopped, raw garlic provided with the delicious house bread would keep any vampires away, although the olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the tables helped tame the garlic’s bite. Our table got another dose of garlic with an appetizer of bruschetta. Traditionally, bruschetta is a slice of bread that’s toasted, rubbed with olive oil and garlic and then spread with a tomato topping. Cafe Milazzo’s version is a soft, un-toasted slice of bread topped with chopped tomatoes, basil, garlic and melted mozzarella. In all fairness to the restaurant, this dish is really dependent on absolutely ripe tomatoes, which are not a possibility in late October. Still, this is a flavorful version, enhanced by the addition of the toasted mozzarella.

Diners at Cafe Milazzo would do well to fast before coming because portions there are enormous. Dinner entrees are preceded by an excellent house salad punctuated by homemade and extremely addictive basil croutons. Cafe Milazzo has a good selection of pastas and pizza, although pizza is not served on Mondays. I ordered mostaccioli pasta in a vodka-tomato cream sauce with pancetta and kalamata olives, which arrived at a searing hot temperature. The pasta was tasty, with crispy bits of pancetta contrasting nicely with the tang of the black olives. My one gripe would be that the pieces of pancetta and olive could have been smaller so that they integrated better with the rest of the dish.

My husband ordered one of the specials, halibut baked in a lemon-butter sauce. The halibut was perfectly cooked, and the citrus-laced butter perfectly complemented the delicate flesh of the fish. The entree was set off by fresh asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto and roasted at high heat to bring out the flavor of the spears. These were so good I could have made a meal of them.

We wrapped up dinner with two huge mugs of very good coffee and some crème brûlée. So many restaurants fiddle with this dessert that it’s rare to see a plain version that hasn’t been infused with orange, lavender, ginger or whatever. Cafe Milazzo’s version is light on the caramelized-sugar topping and resonates with a true eggy flavor.

Cafe Milazzo has proved to be a welcome addition to Sacramento’s dining scene and is definitely a great neighborhood hangout. Even if you don’t live in East Sac, this unpretentious Italian cafe deserves a look.