Neighborhood watch

Formoli’s Bistro

3839 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 448-5699

The friendly neighborhood restaurant, where you can saunter in for a glass of wine and a dependably interesting, reasonably priced meal, can be a rare breed—depending, of course, on one’s neighborhood. I myself live in East Sacramento, and while there are plenty of restaurants around, none has quite taken on “friendly neighborhood” status. I was interested, therefore, when the unassuming-looking Formoli’s Bistro popped up in a not-very-promising storefront next to Thai Palace on J Street, formerly the home of an espresso bar/legal-advice business.

So why did it take me several months after their April opening to get there? Well, I was a little worried: That storefront, it didn’t look so great, though the interior had been spiffed up with red walls, attractive art and sleek, polished granite tables. But there was no menu out front and, honestly, my experience with renovated-storefront restaurants hasn’t been that great. On a recent evening, though, I just didn’t want to cook and was on my way home from McKinley Park, and there was Formoli’s, all ready to serve some food. And now I’m kicking myself for waiting so long, because the food? Really good. The atmosphere? Totally pleasant. A husband-and-wife team own the joint; he cooks in the open kitchen, she provides warm service with grace and aplomb.

The space is the teensiest bit awkward in that you walk in and a high wall separates the entry from the dining room, but a sign at the end with the specials—Moroccan-spiced lamb chops! Pearl couscous with grilled chicken!—makes it all seem more inviting. The full dinner menu isn’t too long, offering small plates, a few sandwiches and even fewer entrees. Things change weekly, but when we were there they were serving gazpacho, yam fries, fried calamari with smoked-paprika aioli, duck breast, a flatbread chicken sandwich, a whiskey burger (that’s a standby, as are the yam fries), a portobello-mushroom sandwich—largely a collection of modded-up American bistro fare, but done with a bit of imagination and some Middle Eastern-sounding touches. The wine list focused on European wines, including some Spanish (my Albariño was crisp yet mouth-filling, apple-y and delightful) and Portuguese, and the by-the-glass pours are, frankly, huge.

I started off with a small portion of thick, refreshingly tangy gazpacho, topped with avocado, cucumber and microgreens (a favorite of the kitchen). The color was a bit dull, but the vegetal tomato and cucumber flavors shone through. My husband, meanwhile, enjoyed stuffed dates, their sweetness balanced by fresh goat cheese and savory pancetta—plus more microgreens. We almost fought over the last one—the portion is a little small—but managed to cease hostilities. Meanwhile, our daughter demolished a grilled cheese (not from the menu, but our server was eager to suggest options the kitchen could make for kids), and we snacked on the crisp, earthy sweet-potato chips alongside.

My husband ordered the duck breast, seared to a shattering crust on the outside, with the rich juice of the fatty skin alongside the leaner, faintly gamy meat. The nicely judged but simple salt-and-pepper seasoning brought out the meat’s flavor, and a fine-chopped relish of sweet sautéed apples and some toasty walnuts pointed in an autumnal direction.

The pappardelle special, which I ordered for my entree, was one of the evening’s only (mild) disappointments. There was nothing wrong with the execution of the dish—it’s been a while since I’ve seen carrots cut in such a teensy, perfect brunoise—but the conception of it was a little peculiar: thick ribbons of pasta, tender-chewy strips of sun-dried tomatoes, some shredded cheese (it tasted to me like a mild, fresh pecorino) and a blistered Anaheim chili loosely half-filled with ground beef, plus the carrot bits and some equally fine-cut herbs; I caught a whiff of dusky oregano and the freshness of parsley. The whole thing was lightly dressed with oil rather than a sauce, and the parts all tasted pretty good but didn’t quite cohere.

Harmony was restored over dessert, however. The short dessert menu lists crème caramel, chocolate crème caramel and saffron ice cream. The latter is the pick of the bunch; the chef-owner is Persian, we were told, and he and his wife make the ice cream, a version of a traditional Persian treat. I’ve had versions that were bright yellow and perfume-y with rosewater, but this one, lavishly piled into a martini glass, applied the saffron and the aromatics with a light touch. I’ve rarely tasted such creamy, subtle, perfectly textured ice cream. It came topped with two tiny, rather strong cardamom cookies, friable to the point of crumbling.

We also ordered the chocolate crème caramel, which was not quite the textural triumph of the ice cream—it seemed on edge of being broken. It had an unusual cinnamon note and not too strong a chocolate flavor, and was more like a crème brûlée (you could watch the chef crisping the sugar topping with a kitchen blowtorch). A tart, haunting fruity red sauce, which I couldn’t quite place, napped the plate. We left sated, and happy to have found a neighborhood restaurant we think we can love—and one that’s worth a visit even if you don’t live within walking distance.