Italian spoken here

Palermo Ristorante Italiano

9632 Emerald Oaks Dr.
Elk Grove, CA 95624

(916) 686-1582

I speak just enough halting but decently pronounced Italian to get me into trouble when I try it out on native speakers. The last time I was in Italy, my when-in-Rome requests for directions, gelato, a glass of wine or the like seemed invariably to lead to a torrent of enthusiastic Italian from the other party and blank stares from me, as I strained to understand more than the first word or two. I began to think that I might as well go back to ugly-American pointing and smiling.

Nevertheless, I’m glad to have the extremely limited language ability I do, if only because it helps me pronounce things on Italian menus such as that at Palermo Ristorante Italiano, a new restaurant in an Elk Grove shopping center. Palermo is in Sicily, and while some of the restaurant’s dishes certainly have a robustly southern Italian and Sicilian air about them, the menu is more pan-Italian.

The owners come from the south and have a hand-kissing flair that’s very Italian (so much so that one might unworthily suspect them of playing up the strong-a accent-a), but until recently they ran a Palermo Ristorante in Palo Alto. No doubt the spiraling cost of living and doing business drove them from the peninsula. Palermo’s brand of friendly, homey, down-to-earth Italian cooking is not what brings home the pancetta in high-flying Palo Alto these days.

The new space in Elk Grove, however, doesn’t lend itself to a lot of atmosphere. There are pictures of Sicilian scenes and some ceramic fruit on the walls, but otherwise things are your basic strip-mall space, with floor-to-ceiling windows adding something of a fishbowl effect. Still, the place is already packed—not surprisingly, since fast-growing Elk Grove cries out for more reliable neighborhood spots.

The menu’s offerings are mostly straightforward, the kind of thing you’d have for Sunday lunch at a mid-priced trattoria in Italy: There are roast meats with polenta, roasted potatoes and vegetables; a selection of pastas; hearty appetizers and salads; and easy-quaffing Italian wines by the carafe, as well as by the bottle. I was drawn to several items on the handwritten, Xeroxed portion of the menu marked “Today’s Specials” (though they didn’t look like they were just that day’s), among them the starter of “buffalo salad,” with fresh mozzarella, eggplant and greens.

Named for the tender, milky slice of imported mozzarella perched on its top, the salad was nicely balanced, with a mound of fresh, crisp greens and a subtle balsamic dressing. The eggplant came in the form of little rolls made from thin slices of the vegetable, a provolone-like cheese and red pepper. The eggplant and cheese competed a bit in texture, but the flavors were great. Olives and prettily cut, peel-free orange slices added further contrasting sweet, salty and bitter notes.

My husband’s appetizer, a stuffed artichoke that was reminiscent of a young hedgehog in both size and approachability, was more perplexing. It arrived splayed open in a bowl of warm, watery broth, with an enormous lump of stuffing. This stuffing was pasty and extraordinarily dense, like Play-Doh with the tasty addition of capers and anchovies. I liked it, but a little went a long way. The leaves and heart of the artichoke were cooked to tenderness, and the sharp tips of the leaves had been carefully clipped, but the fuzzy choke inside had not been trimmed, which made eating it all the more difficult.

Still, the server applauded my husband’s effort with it; a lot of people, he said, didn’t know how to attack it. The service started slow (we were there on a very busy Saturday night) but was pleasant throughout. One minor problem—my wineglass bore evidence of someone else’s lipstick—was taken care of with efficiency and apologies.

My main course, osso buco, also came from the specials menu, where it was marked with “WOW!”—possibly a case of overselling. It was good, but not outstanding, though the meat was nicely braised, and the polenta was well-cooked. The bright-green spinach was studded with too much coarsely chopped garlic, but the dish as a whole was on the bland side, badly needing salt.

My husband’s mixed-seafood risotto had the loose consistency known in Italian as all’ondo. I thought the rice was perhaps a smidgen overcooked and mushy, and the whole dish tasted a little too pungently fishy, but the seafood was nicely cooked and tender.

Desserts, most of them made in-house, were similarly mixed in quality. My husband’s tiramisu was the hit of the evening, a light and simple layering of coffee-soaked spongecake and mascarpone rather than the tarted-up version one so often sees. My enormous and overflowing goblet of zabaglione over strawberries could have used some of the same restraint and authenticity. Its texture was commendably light and foamy, but it was a bit too sweet and not quite vinous enough for my taste.

In the end, I felt like Palermo Ristorante’s Italian cooking was a little bit like my own language ability: The goodwill is definitely there, and it has an authentic feel about it at first, but it wouldn’t really hold its own with the real thing.