Still tasty after all these years
Sacramento, CA 95816
Opened in 1983, Paragary’s has become a Midtown standby—a fixture on Sacramento’s burgeoning restaurant scene. With the spread of Randy Paragary’s mini-empire to several other cuisines and restaurants, it can be easy to forget about the restaurant that started it all. But there it still sits at the otherwise nondescript corner of 28th and N streets, offering its simple but stylish Italian-inflected menu and its gorgeous back patio.
I remember going to Paragary’s years ago for special dinners when I was in high school or home from college. Back then, the options for dining out in Sacramento were distinctly more limited than they are these days. Now that we have just about any kind of food you could want and a huge range of higher-end restaurants, what brings people back to this longtime standby?
In a word, quality. The food remains excellent. The servers are well-trained and professional (though, on a recent visit, ours was perhaps just a bit cheeky, albeit amusing). The understated atmosphere has aged well, even if the open kitchen has a curiously domestic look about it. The lovely patio, which we couldn’t enjoy on our visit (it was a chilly, windy night in early spring), should keep packing in the crowds as the warm weather returns to stay.
Even without the patio and on a Monday night, Paragary’s had a buzz. It wasn’t crowded, but it was doing a good business, and the clientele was happy and convivial. A table of ladies next to us asked whether Randy was there that night (he wasn’t) and chatted about their visits to the restaurant over time. A couple on what looked like a blind date got to know each other. And the whole place ran with the smoothness of long experience.
The menu—which runs to pizzas from the wood-fired oven, practiced and classic pastas and likeable meat dishes—generally sticks to a Cal-Ital style that now feels traditional yet still fresh. I was glad to see that the drink menu has not entirely succumbed to the trend of invented cocktails. There’s a full bar and a short menu of specialty drinks, but they’re mostly pretty restrained. Among the most surprising, which my husband ordered, was an “Italian” margarita—the basic drink, but with a float of amaretto on top. Its bitter-almond scent married surprisingly well with the tart lime juice. The wine list seemed a touch predictable, if sound: lots of chardonnays among the bottles (there was more diversity among the reds), and not a lot of intriguing choices in the wines by the glass.
The appetizer list offered several enticing picks, as did the rest of the menu. In an attempt to try a little of everything, my husband ordered the smoked salmon pizza from the appetizer menu (thus trying to cover the “pizza” section, as well). Because the crust is baked separately and then topped with crème fraîche, cold-smoked salmon, capers and a tangle of paper-thin red onion slices, the pizza was a bit cold, but its flavors were delicious. I might have liked a little more of the tangy crème fraîche to add moisture.
Meanwhile, I started with a lovely baby spinach salad with apples, currants, bleu cheese and toasted walnuts. This is a kitchen that knows how to dress a salad. Overdressed salads are one of my pet peeves, but here each leaf was perfectly coated with the tangy, balanced cider vinaigrette. When I was finished, there was no puddle—not even a drop—of extra dressing on the plate. Other details, like the ultra-thin slices of apple, also betrayed the excellent training of the prep cooks.
I was drawn to the list of pastas for my main course, particularly the hand-cut rosemary noodles with chicken, pancetta, artichokes and leeks. I am a sucker for a toothsome noodle, and when I saw a woman at another table spooning up the wide, thick ribbons, I knew I had to order the dish (even though I’m not always convinced that chicken and pasta are the best match). The aromatic, just-al-dente noodles and their brothy sauce justified my choice, though the slightly dry chicken was, I thought, the weak link in the dish. However, the lardons of salty pancetta and the sweet, tender artichokes were just right.
My husband’s entree—slow-cooked lamb with beans, greens and bread crumbs—was equally good, though very different. The meaty depth of flavor in the sauce again showed the kitchen’s attention to detail, and the fork-tender texture of the lamb was excellent. We also loved the smoky, crisp-at-the-edges side dish of grilled rapini that we tried.
After all this, we shared a warm apple crostada from a dessert list that also leans to the tried and true—crème brûlée, warm chocolate cake and mocha pots de crème. The crostada’s buttery crust and caramelized, tender, sweet-tart apples were a delicious match, and the center hid a yummy surprise of almond paste. This well-executed classic, kept fresh with an unexpected and delicious twist, seemed a fitting ending for a meal at a restaurant that has made and retained its strong reputation with just such a style.