Let’s get lost

When in the Sacramento River Delta, it’s best to take your bearings. Travel 25 miles south of Sacramento on Highway 160 down the winding levee road and you hit Walnut Grove, where the confluence of the Sacramento, Cosumnes and Mokelumne rivers divides the verdant landscape into mysterious floating islands that seem to drift and shift shape amid a maze of sloughs and waterways with strange-sounding names and amorphous outlines that defy modern mapping techniques. Take a sharp left on Walnut Grove Road at the south edge of the town and you’ll come to a horizontal swinging drawbridge where, just off to the left side, you’ll find Giusti’s Place—the full-service bar, restaurant and boat landing that’s the pride of Tyler Island.

At least, that’s where it was the last time I checked.

You’ll know you’re at Giusti’s (pronounced juice-teas) for sure if there are about 500 ball caps pinned to the ceiling. The brand names and subject matter printed on the hats delineates the interests of the bar’s clientele: hunting, fishing, farming, professional sports. In the swampy sloughs behind the restaurant, in an area called the Delta Meadows, B-moviemaker Russ Meyer once filmed Rope of Flesh. A picture of one of his blond, buxom super-vixens graces the front wall of the bar, along with publicity stills of football players, actors and other celebs who’ve visited the place. People know about Giusti’s; it’s not unusual to find a limo waiting out front. On Fridays and Saturdays, latecomers might have to wait for a table.

Not that we’re talking about ultra-haute cuisine here. Giusti’s offers hearty family-style fare: fried chicken, veal cutlets, top sirloin steaks, prime rib and pastas. Thursday is Italian night, featuring roasted garlic and bruschetta for appetizers, and dishes such as clam linguine, ravioli and veal sweetbreads for entrées. No matter what night it is, dinner includes minestrone served in huge, steaming-hot bowls and a hearty salad of tossed romaine served with house dressing, slices of dried salami and a huge side of garbanzo and kidney beans marinated in olive oil with basil and garlic.

The soup is the kind that’s been simmering in a giant pot all day long, so that noodles and vegetables disintegrate in an opaque, beefy broth. Grated Parmesan and a dash of Tabasco provide the perfect seasoning. The salad was plentiful, green and fresh, with a moderate amount of thin, tangy Thousand Island-like dressing. Soup, salad and the loaf of bread provided can easily fill you up, so pace yourself.

Entrées sampled on two separate visits included the aforementioned clam linguine, lasagna and breaded oysters. Like the minestrone, the linguine came in a huge cauldron, with more than a dozen white-shelled clams grinning up out of the noodles and sauce of butter, white wine, lemon juice and garlic. Simple, but effective—and delicious.

Lasagna was a heaping, double serving of thin, wide noodles layered with sweet tomato sauce and ricotta cheese. Tasty, with plenty left over for lunch the next day.

Oysters were breaded then grilled rather than deep fat-fried. Again, nothing fancy, just good, solid fare, especially considering the fried and flattened mollusks were one of the lowest-priced items on the menu. The French fries were pretty damned good, too.

Just two real drawbacks to report on this Delta hideaway. First, the water has a slight sulfur taste and is best avoided by all but the most inebriated customers. Second, there’s no dessert on the menu. Seems a shame not to have at least a bowl of spumoni or something.

Perhaps the folks who run Giusti’s skip dessert because they want you to have plenty of time to make the trip back to Sacramento. It’s only a 25-minute journey. Assuming you don’t get lost along the way.