Sporty Italian

Sampino’s Kitchen at Joe Marty’s

Good for: Sampino’s legendary Italian specialties
Notable dishes: eggplant parmesan, meatball sandwich, tiramisu

Sampino’s Kitchen at Joe Marty’s

1500 Broadway
Sacramento, CA 95818

(916) 382-9022

Sacramento has had phenomenal Italian grocers for decades, but until recently the Italian restaurants didn’t follow suit.

Yes, there’s Biba, that iconic fine-dining institution so famous that its namesake earns nationwide respect. But really, if you wanted good pasta on a weeknight, your best bet was Corti Brothers, the (late) Italian Importing Co. or Sampino’s Towne Foods.

Sampino’s started as a wholesaler and transitioned to an Italian deli more than 15 years ago. Except for occasional Friday dinners, they never had sit-down service. Now, they have that opportunity with the takeover of Joe Marty’s.

In December 2015, Joe Marty’s rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the original sports bar. New owners resurrected it, with lots of nostalgia but only so-so cooking. Michael Sampino knew he could improve it.

Since March, Sampino revamped the menu and staff. Many of the popular dishes from Sampino’s Towne Foods appear, while table settings look more formal than they had previously.

Unlike many new restaurants, Sampino’s offers food that is well-tested and dialed in. The real challenge seems to be fine-tuning service and timing in this different setting. On each of our visits, there seemed to be plenty of staff, but they were a bit scattered.

During one dinner, we got drinks quickly, including a happy hour special of $5 for a Device Brewing Co. IPA. The requested fried zucchini with marinara ($8.95) never made it to us, though, despite ordering it from two separate servers.

The food we did get made us sorry we hadn’t been to Sampino’s more recently. An entree of eggplant Parmesan ($17.95) revealed a napoleon construction of breaded eggplant, two kinds of cheese and the rich house marinara.

With perfectly al dente squash and buttery garlic bread, it’s a hearty meal. The eggplant doesn’t suffer the oiliness often found in this preparation, and it wasn’t blanketed in cheese, but nicely accented.

The menu prices skew higher than those listed on the website (which lists the eggplant Parmesan for $12.95). They’re also pricier for the same items than at Towne Foods, although they do include buttery garlic bread and soup or salad.

In fact, the minestrone we tasted one night was outstanding. It’s clearly built on long-simmered stock, then mixed with cannellini beans, pasta shards and plentiful vegetables. We finished every savory, cheesy spoonful.

For an entree, ravioli is a mix-and-match affair, with four fillings and three sauces to combine. We tried three cheese with Bolognese and found that Sampino’s ravioli are so much larger and thus cheesier than those at Corti Brothers. The Bolognese on top displayed a good creaminess amid its meaty texture. Comparing versions from OBO’ Italian Table & Bar to Amaro Bistro & Bar to Adamo’s Kitchen, we thought Sampino’s sauce rates high among them.

Another familiar dish from the deli is the steak and blue cheese salad ($10.99). The bitter greens mixed with sweeter mesclun provide a good foil for rich marinated tri-tip and crumbled blue cheese. Dried cranberries, julienned apple and candied pecans add crunch and sweetness, while the light balsamic vinaigrette complements without overpowering.

Also a classic, Sampino’s meatball sandwich ($13.50) reveals medium-sized polpette layered on ciabatta with three kinds of cheese, garlic aioli and marinara. I love the crunchy, zesty pepperoncini you get every few bites.

You must save room for the cannoli and tiramisu ($5.95 each). They’re both excellent examples of classic Italian sweets, the tiramisu being an exceptionally light and well-balanced version.

Hopefully, the service issues will iron out quickly, because the addition of Sampino’s to Joe Marty’s has vastly improved the food there. It’s now a sports bar worth patronizing not only for drinks, but dinner as well.