Sacramento News & Review – Italian standby (Il Forno Classico)


greg-lucasBy Greg Lucas

In the Lucas family neighborhood, the go-to joint for Italian is Café Vinoteca. Among its many enjoyments are lots of garden-fresh, organic ingredients, killer pies, remarkably friendly and accommodating staff and having the owners, Jim and Jane Ison, as close friends.

Empirical data suggests Il Forno Classico provides a similar service for the denizens of Gold River off Sunrise Boulevard, a few stoplights north of Highway 50. Tucked into the Gold Centre Lane’s supermarket-anchored brick strip mall, Il Forno lets a diner know precisely what to expect with the banner across its facade: pasta, pollo, pizza, focaccia, risotto, pesce, bistecca, dolce, espresso, vino, martini, birra. Vinoteca is far less gussied-up than the busy interior of Il Forno. There’s coats of arms from Sienna, cross-thatch tan and black upholstery, similarly hued tile work. It’s festive but a bit dark, the two-person booths tight.

There is a reason drinks and vino get billing out front—cataloging the options totals 11 double-sided pages. Similarly, focaccia more than deserves its place outside. The 6-inch-across oval of rosemary-spiced bread comes to the table quickly but is consumed quicker. It’s accompanied by a dipping sauce that’s a definite cut above the standard balsamic and oil, although Vinoteca’s rocks pretty hard, too. Cutting through the crust, the interior is honeycombed, spongy and addicting.

While salad is not listed out front, there’s nine options, of which one-third are sampled. The half portions, $6 to $8, are hearty. On a lunch visit, Jessica, the patient and knowledgeable waitress, warns the spring salad is “super sweet,” which seems like a given since it’s a blend of mixed greens and dried cranberries with a cherry-hazelnut dressing. In reality, although sweet, the blanket of feta cheese, liberal dose of pignoli and several strong cranks of the pepper mill make for a harmonious whole. Actually, the spinach salad is sweeter, despite the inclusion of feta, pine nuts and bacon. The power of deduction leaves the caramelized onion dressing as the clear culprit. Another good mix.

Daughter Katie, with an extensive list of salad-ingredient dislikes, makes a rare showing of diversity: raspberry-vinaigrette-doused mixed greens with caramelized apples, walnuts and blue cheese. “I don’t know what the apples are, but it’s good though.” What parent would dare reply, “They’re caramelized, just as the menu says”? Far safer: “Great, glad you like them.”

The veal trilogy—scaloppini, piccata and parmigiana—are house specialties. Politically correct eaters can opt for chicken. The piccata is a Hollywood production. A ring of garlic-juked green beans around the edge of the plate, another circle of artichoke hearts within and, in the Inferno’s ninth circle, the veal itself—smoky, tender and not overly lemony—on a bed of fettuccine. No skimping on capers. It’s tons of food and shatters the conventional piccata template.

Katie, mainly an alfredo fan, opts for the rainbow tortellini, which lies beneath a mantle of creamy mushroom and bacon sauce. Ever diplomatic, Katie allows as to how it looks like barf but tastes fantastic.

Rounding out the three Ps, the strega nonna pizza, even in a smaller lunch portion, is plentiful. It is mere seconds since its removal from the wood-burning oven, scalded tongue as proof. The smoky, spicy mix of sausage, salami and prosciutto accented with some basil mozzarella is appreciated more after it sits a bit. Of the vegetarian pizza options, the Florentine is most creative—red onion, artichoke hearts, red and yellow peppers with mozzarella and pesto sauce. Of the meatless pasta options, the butternut squash and portobello ravioli share the throne.

The lunch specials pairing a pasta or pizza with a Caesar or mixed green salad are a good value in the $12 to $15 range. Some serious coin can get dropped at dinner with a glass or three of wine. If Gold River were the Lucas family’s neighborhood, this would be the go-to Italian place.