Stai zitta e cucina
Gianni’s Trattoria2724 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95816
The new Gianni’s Trattoria, which occupies the former space of the Black Pearl Oyster Bar, really tempts fate—that is, reviewers—with its motto, “sta zietta e‘ mangia.” In Italian, the menu divulges, it means “shut up and eat.” Isn’t that practically begging me to use “Shut up and cook” or something similarly unsavory as a headline?
I’ve resisted temptation, only because Gianni’s doesn’t quite deserve it. The food has its points, though it’s often flawed. And the space is cool. I liked the hip décor, our server was a sweetheart and good at her job to boot, and the menu has many temptations, from rarely seen veal tonnato and summery prosciutto with mozzarella and fig confit to hearty pasta dishes and pheasant with sel gris.
What left me a bit irritated about the experience, though, was that the Italianate theme at Gianni’s seems really only skin deep. I can forgive the idea of a trattoria—traditionally a cozy, casual, family-run kind of a place—having stylish glowing-blue tabletops and a lineup of drinks that end in “tini.” I found it harder to overlook the spelling (on the bar menu) of limoncello as “lemon chelo” and the fact that pasta wasn’t al dente. Yes, the former is just a misspelling, but it doesn’t exactly argue for a deep familiarity with Italian culture, and nobody’s “nonna” would be down with overcooked pasta. On the other hand, apparently they make their lemon chelo in house, and in the “Mi Madre” cocktail with Tuaca, it tastes OK—certainly very lemony, though the drink as a whole was too sweet.
There’s a solid if not long list of wines, with a variety of Californian and Italian producers, but the by-the-glass list is disappointingly timid and dull. Are the diners here really only going to want white zinfandel, chardonnay, or sauvignon blanc, among the lighter wines?
Really, Gianni’s offers not Italian food but a new variant on Italian-American. No, we’re not in the red gravy land of The Sopranos—though I will say the brusque maître d‘ bore a slightly unsettling resemblance to Paulie Walnuts—but the food is mostly heavily reworked from Italian roots. We started with a “crusty bread salad Toscana,” which sounded like panzanella but was really like a deconstructed antipasti plate from a North Beach restaurant in salad form. It combined chopped Romaine, bits of Gorgonzola, sliced pieces of fontina, strips of salami and pickles and olives with a tangy-sweet balsamic dressing. I liked that it was lighter than either a bread salad or an antipasti plate, though I found the sweet pickles a little peculiar. They seemed to fall outside of the flavor profile of everything else.
Next on our lineup was the calamari marinated in buttermilk. If you, like me, have been wondering when it became illegal to have a menu without fried calamari, here’s something different: It’s calamari cooked in a spicy tomato sauce, with basil and chilies. I have never had more tender calamari rings, but there seemed to be a lot of cheese on top (unmentioned on the menu; maybe the buttermilk had coagulated? I couldn’t quite figure it out). The bright, spicy tomato sauce, perfect for sopping up with old-school sourdough, made up for it, though: That’s a tasty dish. Indeed, someone in the kitchen has a way with cephalopods. On another visit, we tried a mixed seafood salad with super-tender squid rings, baby octopus and shrimp, as well as some discordant smoked trout. It needed a jolt of lemon juice, but otherwise I liked the piquant mix of chili flakes, lemon zest and oil dressings.
I looked to the pasta section of the menu, where I was drawn to a number of things, but most of them—lasagna, baked ziti with eggplant and roasted red peppers, tortellini with chicken sausage and fontina—seemed a little heavy for a hot summer night. Instead, on our server’s enthusiastic recommendation, I tried the fusilli with artichokes, chicken, rosemary and white wine. The long, ringlet-like fusilli was the past-al-dente pasta, but the flavors of the light sauce were pleasant. The chicken was a bit dry, and the long-stemmed and few artichokes had been marinated unaccountably or altered, so they no longer tasted fresh, though the server had assured me they were. (They really tasted like canned artichokes, and I wonder if they might have been some high-end, imported baby artichokes.)
My husband tried a veal chop with porcini mushrooms and a brown glaze of a sauce, sprinkled with smoked black sea salt in little deposits around the plate. I liked the flavor of the salt, which really does pack a powerfully smoky punch, but the sauce was heavily over-salted. The meat, however, was thick and juicy, with a fairly impressive heft on the bone, and the porcini added extra flavor.
On another night, we picked up a pizza, the “Tuscan,” from the third major section of the menu. It fell somewhere between Italian and American styles. The crust was thin and at the edges, cracker-like, but saltless and bland. The toppings of fresh mozzarella, marinated peppers and sausage were tasty enough, but too heavily applied for the thin crust.
There’s a short dessert list and no menu; the server tells you the list, which includes chocolate lava cake and other usual suspects, among them tiramisu, which we tried. As with Gianni’s as a whole, the presentation was striking, with a spider web of dessert sauces surrounding a slice of rather average tiramisu. The mascarpone was grainy rather than creamy, and it didn’t pack a punch of coffee flavor. Gianni’s has a good location and a great space, but the kitchen’s work could be more consistent.