Keep it in the family
Español Italian Restaurant
Sacramento, CA 95819
My family usually holds a reunion in Bodega Bay each August. With three kids in tow, I always make a trip to the übercute town of Occidental for an Italian family meal. The Union Hotel and Negri’s Original Italian Restaurant have both been there since the early 20th century, serving hearty multicourse dinners.
Since we missed the annual trek this year, we wanted something similar here. Sure, it’s nice to go out and have a “farm-to-fork” meal at one of this city’s many wonderful eateries, but there’s a reason chain restaurants continue to thrive: They serve families well.
That said, my family didn’t want to patronize Thank God, It’s the Olive Factory. What could be more perfect then, but Español?
Now celebrating its 90th year, the confusingly monikered Español Italian Restaurant is an old-timey Italian joint. Originally a Basque boarding house in Old Sacramento, then a restaurant and hotel, it moved to its present East Sacramento location in 1965. Part of the neighborhood’s miniature Little Italy stretch, it’s directly across the boulevard from the venerable Corti Brothers grocery store and down the street from Talini’s Nursery.
Owned by the Luigi family for more than 50 years, Español still serves four-course prix fixe meals. For less than the cost of the fried, cheese-smothered Tour of Italy at a certain chain, diners at Español can enjoy bottomless minestrone, a fresh salad, a generous pasta entree and ice cream—plus beverages and bread.
The décor is delightfully movie-set Italian, with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and family photos aplenty. The servers seem like family, too. They don’t wear uniforms or introduce themselves—although they probably know most of the diners by name.
You can order agrave; la carte or “dinner” style, and if you don’t specify, you get the multicourse dinner. There are set daily specials (chicken cacciatore, for example) and a short children’s menu, but all meals begin with a tureen of soup—refills on the house.
It’s not great minestrone, but it’s chock-full of chunky veggies and tender shell pasta. No one will be offended or enlightened. Sop it up with some soft Italian bread, and move on to the salad.
Español makes all of its sauces and dressings in-house, and you get to ladle your own, with a choice of Italian, blue cheese or Thousand Island. The salad is a mix of crunchy fresh romaine, a wedge of ripe tomato, and some antipasti in the form of salami, beans and shredded beets. It’s quite delightful, and all the better with a dollop of the zesty vinaigrette.
There are many pasta sauce options and styles, and some meaty standards, such as chicken Parmesan, veal cutlets Milanese and fried chicken “agrave; la Luigi” with garlic.
We’ve had good luck with the pork-chop plate, which features two large, tender pan-fried chops served with applesauce and perfectly al dente fresh vegetables. The fried chicken is often smothered in garlic, but scrape it off if you must and get to the juicy, plentiful poultry.
The real revelation here is the marinara sauce. Made on-site, it’s a fresh, chunky blend of ripe tomatoes and herbs. Every entree comes with a plate of nicely cooked pasta bathed in this ambrosial sauce. A dish of ravioli is OK on its own, but topped with the house-made marinara, it invites plate licking.
Dessert is usually just a simple dish of spumoni or vanilla ice cream, although Español sometimes also has cannoli. The wine list is uninspiring but serviceable. Just don’t get the cloyingly sweet house wines.
Español’s servers are great with kids, although the average diner’s age is usually much higher. Don’t forgo it as a relic, though. It has a great retro neighborhood feel, and it’s a lovely nonchain example of family dining at its best.