Race against quality
Sacramento, CA 95814
The new quick-service restaurant Pronto, a venture from the Paesano’s team occupying the space that formerly housed Hukilau Island Grill, has as its motto “Real Italian. Real Fast.” That’s a good marketing slogan, and I understand that the team has some crowd-pleasing to do in the devising of the menu. Nonetheless, I have a hard time believing the “Real Italian” claims of any place that puts a “Spicy Buffalo Blue” salad on a menu section headed “Insalata.” The only buffalo anything that belongs in Italian salads is mozzarella di bufala.
That’s not to say that a spicy Buffalo-style chicken salad with green apples and Gorgonzola dressing might not be a tasty lunch, but it’s about as Italian as the PB&J panino on the kids’ menu. So much for the first part of the slogan. Fast, however, I can vouch for. On a lunch visit, our entrees came up plenty quickly, making our pager buzz and light up.
When the food is ready, it appears at a window into the kitchen, and you fetch it yourself. Similarly, there’s a lineup for ordering. The place has been transformed from its Hukilau days; my friend commented that it seemed a little smaller. I mainly noticed the deep tomato-red and celadon color scheme, which gave the place a rustic-modern sort of air.
The menu is divided into many sections, with plenty of choice: salads, a few soups, sandwiches (mainly of the panino persuasion), “comfort plates” (read: carbs), rotisserie meats (whole chickens to go are a specialty) and sides like polenta or grilled vegetables to go with them. The confusingly named “bada bing” are mainly appetizers, and mainly fried or otherwise unhealthy: Paesano’s garlic bread, fried zucchini, polenta fries and house-made potato chips with rosemary and sea salt.
We decided to try the latter, which were as light and crisp as any bag of Lay’s. They were, however, oversalted and under-herbed; it was hard to get the flavor of rosemary. They had a slightly off flavor that I suspect means the restaurant needs to change its fryer oil: a telltale, ever-so-faint near-fishiness.
One of the good deals on the menu is a bowl of soup with half a panino added for $3.50, which makes a reasonably satisfying lunch on a cool fall day. I paired the Tuscan white-bean soup with a prosciutto sandwich half. I liked the roasted red peppers and cheese on the latter, but the moist saltiness of the bubblegum-pink, thickly sliced prosciutto gave it away as not being the very best quality. (On the other hand, it was only $3.50.) Oddly, for a so-called panino, the sandwich didn’t seem to be pressed but only grilled, with very oily bread. The brothy bean soup had a nice flavor; it would have been better, however, if it had been served hot rather than barely lukewarm.
My friend tried a simple plate of pasta with tomatoes, garlic, basil and cheese. It was showered with so much chopped, raw-ish garlic that one bite left me breathing fire, and I also felt it was a bit oily. My friend, who feels one cannot have too much garlic, liked it better than I did.
Because the restaurant is clearly aiming for a big takeout business with its rotisserie chickens and roast beef, my family and I went back to get a dinner to bring home. The menu offers a set plan of a chicken, your choice of two family-sized sides and garlic bread for $24.95. This isn’t a money-saving deal, particularly; those items ordered separately would add up to less than a dollar more than that price. It’s an easy option, though, and it’s certainly a lavish dinner.
The rich mac-and-cheese side dish we got was a hit with our toddler. I liked its flavor but found the stringiness of the four cheeses a little odd. Unlike most mac and cheese, where the cheese is incorporated in the sauce, this had a lasagna-like quality, with the tangy cheese stretching on each bite. Our other side, grilled vegetables, was unexciting but perfectly edible. The garlic bread was very strong but toasty and golden.
The chicken itself wasn’t bad, though the breast was a little dry, but it was not discernibly better than any of the thousands of supermarket rotisserie chickens to be found anywhere in the land. The herb rub on the skin was very salty, and the skin itself definitely could have used a deeper golden sheen and more corresponding crispness. We also tried a small order of the “Italian rotisserie roast beef,” which was dry and uninteresting, hacked into thick and woody slices. It came with small containers of jus and some un-Italian horseradish.
You’ve probably heard the axiom about contractors, to the effect that for a job you can pick any two: good, cheap and fast. It holds true about restaurants, too—and we could probably add a fourth aspect, authenticity. At Pronto, you get little bits of all of those—it’s good-ish, not too pricey and sorta authentic in spots—but they still add up to a restaurant that’s nothing special. If you’re in the neighborhood and need lunch, you could do worse. Just be prepared for powerful garlic breath.