Sacramento, CA 95814
Sampino’s Towne Foods turns out to be a bright jewel in a drab Alkali Flat strip mall of paycheck cashers and a laundromat. It’s everything an Italian deli should be, and more, right down to the Louie Prima on the box and the timpano in the refrigerated display case. This unforgettable cake of salami, meatballs, provolone, boiled eggs, ziti and tomato sauce is inspired—Bill Sampino tells a regular purchasing some meatballs—by the movie Big Night in which the chef creates the dish as a centerpiece for a repast prepared to delight the aforementioned Mr. Prima who is supposed to visit the fictional eatery. (For timpano adherents, a memorable version is also on the menu of Café Vinoteca at Fair Oaks Boulevard and Watt Avenue the last Thursday of each month.)
Postponing a recitation on the Sampino pedigree for a paragraph or two, there are two levels of enjoyment at this wine cellar-channeling eatery with its Deruta-like ceramic bowls, hanging salamis, casks and low-slung brick-edged arches: Sandwiches or take-out.
Several previous occupants of this space have waxed eloquent about the vast pleasure for all parties involved after bringing home an $11 value-priced, more-than-enough-for-two, pasta with billiard-ball-sized meatballs or chicken parmesan. Elsewhere in the take-out Hall of Fame there is meatloaf, lasagna and various Italian sausages to crumble into one’s own chunky red sauce. And, when the spirit moves, a fat slice of timpano.
The place also caters. Several lobbyists, who elect to drive the six to seven blocks from their offices near the Capitol, to pick up sandwiches or—in one instance—five meatballs, begin spewing superlatives when asked their views on Sampino’s.
It’s a bit more complicated to enjoy take-away offerings when eating at Sampino’s—although not impossible. One gentleman’s opening act for a later turkey sandwich is a large plate of macaroni and cheese microwaved by Sampino the Elder whose son, Michael, is actually the owner.
The Elder, who claims to be retired, spends a fair chunk of his golden years behind the counter and the cash register. He spent 17 years of his “work” life making David Berkeley look visionary when it came to his meats.
At Sampino’s, samples are commonly proffered. On one visit, it’s polenta that, as the Elder says, contains “everything.” Whatever constitutes “everything,” it demands a bigger portion. There are five sandwiches that require sampling—although the tri-tip with havarti and honey Dijon barely misses the cut. Generally, in descending order, the list is: Meatball, Sampinini, Le Rustique, chicken parmesan and reuben—all either $6.99 or $7.99. Others might substitute the double-whammy pastrami and pancetta with ample justification.
Whoever is picking the tomatoes has a Midas touch. They are not merely ripe. They are screamingly sweet. Candylike. Authoritative. The rustique’s prosciutto and brie is further sweetened by caramelized onions—management is more than happy to provide extra—and while the breaded chicken breast of the parmesan would be equally as enjoyable without cheddar, the mix of it and provolone is a bonus. The meatball sandwich is the standard to which all others must measure themselves against. Sturdy crusts and soft interiors mark the ciabatta rolls. Sandwiches come with a mixed green salad that has chopped tomatoes of the same sweetness and a light sprinkle of shredded parmesan. Better is to ask for a 50/50 split between the greens and the pasta salad which is Greek in tone with penne rigate, kalamatas and red bell peppers.
San Pellegrino Limonata and Aranciata can be had for $1.49. There’s homemade lemonade and Cheerwine, apparently a stalwart of the South that, as one sandwich maker says, tastes like “you’re going to the dentist.” A bit like a cherry Dr. Pepper. Around two-thirds through the meal, school age Sampinos bring samples of biscotti for dessert.
Three generations of family, consistent and cheerful service, imaginative eats and beverages. Pert near perfect.