High notes and low notes

Arpeggio Wine & Bistro

723 56th St.
Sacramento, CA 95819

(916) 452-7085

There is a certain kind of neighborhood restaurant that I am always slightly surprised to see hanging on. They’re usually in spaces that are plainly not designed to be restaurants—or not fancy ones—and often their reach exceeds their grasp. Arpeggio, which occupies the space that was once the much-lauded Black Cat and then a short-lived bakery/café, is one of these.

In a not-very-interesting strip-mall sort of place just off J Street, it seems like it could draw lunchtime clientele from the nearby HQ of Sacramento Magazine and other office and commercial spaces in the district. I wonder, though, about how it draws in enough crowds for dinner. Sure, there are residents in the area, but the restaurant is an awkward space for dinner: big and a bit barren in feel, with lots of hard-edged surfaces (bare walls, hard floors, uncovered tables) that manage to be neither particularly modern nor at all intimate. Curtains, unfortunately, don’t do enough to ameliorate the feel. Plus, there’s a big counter when you walk in that signals take-out joint—an impression that, however, is dispelled when you get a look at the menu, as well as the more fancified, if slightly dated, décor of the open main dining room. The menu, too, is more ambitious than you might think. The lunch menu relies heavily on panini and sandwiches, but there’s also a pasta menu and some interesting appetizers (seared yellowfin tuna, or lemon-basil goat cheese). Arpeggio also serves breakfast pretty much all day.

It was a blazing day, and I was grateful that our server—who was nothing if not enthusiastic about his role and the restaurant’s offerings—offered us iced tea almost instantly. Service was slow during the rest of the meal, though, especially when it came time to pick up our check—a glitch that seemed to be a function of understaffing.

Primed by the very nice iced tea, we ordered a two-hummus plate, on the server’s recommendation, to start with. It came with a few thin slices of bread (characterized on the menu as “toasted franchasse,” by which I think they meant francese), dusted with dried herbs, and a drizzle around the plate of oil and balsamic vinegar. This had a strikingly upscale touch-of-the-’90s feel about it, and it didn’t add much, if anything, to the flavor of the dish. The ramekins of somewhat runny hummus were enormous; we were done with the bread before we’d made even a dent in the dips.

One dip was a shocking-orange-red pepper hummus, the other a basic one, both made in house (that morning, the server confided). I enjoyed the lemony, herby flavor of both—though I couldn’t tell if the plain hummus had separated a bit or if they’d just poured oil over the top before serving—but neither really tasted like a classic hummus to me or to my friend. I wanted a little more earthy chickpea flavor. The red-pepper tang, though, was pleasant in the orange iteration.

The same red-pepper flavor figured largely—too largely, truth be told—in my friend’s entrée, a spicy eggplant ravioli that was absolutely drowning in a creamy red-pepper sauce, as well as a tangle of green and red peppers, basil, and scallions. (We actually suspected that the cooks make up a big red-pepper base and blend it into the sauce, the hummus, and so on; the flavors were quite similar.) With a light dressing of the sauce, the smoky flavor of the eggplant would have come through better—and less sauce would also have shown off the striking ravioli themselves, which were large rounds with graphic swirls of red beet and green (I think; it was hard to tell under the sauce) spinach pasta. The server told us that the ravioli are sourced from elsewhere, rather than made in house, and I would say that until they adjust the dish to contain less sauce, there’s not much point shelling out more money for those extra-pretty ones.

I liked the taste of my sandwich, the “Tuscan panini,” despite the fact that it seemed neither Tuscan nor particularly like a panino. For starters, it had Italian meats—prosciutto, Italian sausage and salami—but in a combination you’d never see in Tuscany. The panini craze has led to a lot of sandwiches that just aren’t panini being called that. What I call panini should be pressed pretty hard, lightly filled, and toasted well enough to really melt any cheese inside. Arpeggio’s iteration included chunks of tasty Italian sausage, prosciutto and salami, plus some very nice artichoke hearts, mozzarella and Dijon mustard, all on fluffy-ish bread that was toasted on the outside and lightly striped with sandwich-press marks, but not pressed down or heated through. That said, it tasted darned good (I mean, Italian sausage: yum) and was certainly filling, so perhaps it’s churlish to complain that it’s overly Americanized. Alongside it was a pesto pasta salad, something that might usually strike a little fear in my heart, but the pasta was firm, the pesto creamy and mild but not too mild: a successful accompaniment.

We weren’t offered dessert, though some slightly forlorn pastries sat up at the front. We also missed out on the wine aspect of the “bistro”: some bottles (solid if not particularly interesting choices, mostly) sat up front, but in a place that seems so well suited to being a lunch spot it seems odd to emphasize wine so heavily in the name of the restaurant. Arpeggio isn’t very bistro-like, either, and I also couldn’t detect a musical theme in its décor or menu items. All told, I ended up confused about what the restaurant wants to be: dinner destination? Neighborhood lunch spot? Breakfast joint with an upscale twist? I think it’s best suited to lunch—but choose your order carefully, and don’t be in too big a hurry.