Rancho Cordova, CA 95742
You might be forgiven for thinking that a restaurant in a big, splashy Marriott hotel in Rancho Cordova would not be somewhere you’d want to eat. I was skeptical myself, given the way things usually go at hotel restaurants. But I was surprised, and nicely so, at Formaggio Taverna and Patio, which is turning out very competent Italian dishes, most of them with both precision and flair.
What’s more, somebody there has a witty sense of humor and isn’t afraid to use it. In what looks like a sly nod to the Howard Johnson aesthetic, the interior is done in shades of burnt orange, with cushy half-round booths, mod square light fixtures, and walls covered in those layered, skinny beige stones. There are also empty wine bottles standing in big wall niches, stenciled (from top to bottom) with “GOOD,” “DECENT” and “CHEAP.” (I’m not sure what the message is supposed to be there.)
In an early sign that this restaurant was aiming for something more than hotel obscurity, the kitchen sent out an amuse bouche—and it was actually amusing, being a tiny round of battered and fried cheese that looked for all the world like a mini version of the kind of fried mozzarella sticks you’d see at a bog-standard hotel bar. It sat on a pool of zingy tomato sauce, but it didn’t have a ton of cheese flavor. Still, it was a nice start; it’s been a while since I went to a new restaurant anywhere in the Sacramento area that was doing amuses.
An early service glitch meant that we waited a long time for drinks, but thereafter the staff recovered and things went smoothly and quite quickly. The long-awaited drink was an “Italian” mojito, purported to have Bacardi Limón and prosecco, as well as fresh mint and basil. It tasted exactly like a regular mojito, and any basil involved was undetectable to the eye and palate, so I wondered if the bar had screwed up and made the regular version. There are a few other specialty cocktails and a fairly affordable wine list; the by-the-glass list is fairly limited, though serviceable.
The menu includes appetizers, pizzas and panini, pastas and secondi (entrees), plus a few sides; it varies from a trio of cured meats and caprese salad to salami pizza or smoked braised beef brisket with polenta. To begin, I liked the sound of a citrus seafood salad, which included a mixture of crab, lightly lemony greens and unusual, subtle cubes of lightly cooked celery root, with a few discreet rings of crisp fried calamari on the side. There was an ultra-creamy and even subtler celery-root puree on the plate; all in all, it was a lovely and restrained starter.
More robust was my husband’s dish of black mussels and cockles, steamed with white wine, addictively deep-flavored guanciale (cured pork jowl), rings of mild red chilies and some juicy tomatoes. The cockles were beautifully tender and tasted cleanly of the sea—a nice complement to the duskier flavor of mussels—and the broth in the bottom of the bowl went perfectly with the lightly charred toasts accompanying the dish.
For entrees, I decided to go with pasta, while my husband turned to the roasted half chicken with seasonal panzanella. The latter, far from being a heavy bread salad, included biting arugula leaves, juicy cherry tomatoes and olives tossed with crunchy croutons—a summery combination. The chicken was moist, tender and yummy, with crunchy spiced skin roasted to a golden sheen.
I was less sure what to choose for pasta. As listed on the menu, the cannelloni—stuffed with ricotta and mascarpone—at first didn’t sound terribly interesting, but for that evening it was enhanced with goat cheese, fava beans and roasted artichokes, our server said. That gave it a new spin, so it won out against the orecchiette with braised chicken, chickpeas and a miniature panino. I liked the cannelloni’s delicacy, with spinach pasta wound around a lemony (perhaps slightly too lemony) and relatively light-tasting cheese filling, but the vegetables were so finely chopped as to get lost in the shuffle; they were there only as a bit of texture, and their subtle flavors were all but undetectable.
We also had a side of broccolini, just a shade more done than crisp-tender and sautéed in plenty of olive oil, with thin slices of crunchy-chewy garlic flavoring the whole. It was salty, savory and really delicious.
After our pleasantly surprising dinner, the most disappointing aspect of the meal was my dessert. There’s a short dessert menu—lemon budino cake, “dolce di latte” panna cotta, a tiramisu that the server explained has been reworked (something to do with a molten chocolate cake was involved) and a summer fruit crostata—which for that evening our server said would feature peaches and Santa Rosa plums. Sold! Alas, it had, instead, blackberries and figs, which ought to be a nice enough combination. But the figs were shriveled and vegetal-tasting, the blackberries few and not very flavorful.
Worse, the crust had softened and tasted stale. The tartlet, though pretty at first glance, was clearly at least a day old and had been inexpertly re-warmed. That said, there was a generous scoop of vanilla gelato alongside, with a crisp, translucently thin dried-apple slice adorning it and a drizzling of a yummy, sticky fruit syrup. My husband had better luck with a big bowl of chocolate gelato, which came with crunchy little almond biscotti.
I was sorry to end on a slightly down note (though I was able to steal a few bites of that chocolate gelato). For the most part, I thought Formaggio did a very creditable job of boosting the reputation of hotel restaurants by serving up nicely conceived, well-executed food.