Ever since I watched Lady suck on a spaghetti strand with Tramp, I've been hooked on the promise of the little neighborhood Italian place. The checkered tablecloth. The gnarly candle plugging the Chianti flask. The ingratiating waiter and enormous dimpled meatball. The Italian restaurant seemed as inalienable a part of American urban life as the milkman or the dogcatcher.
A couple of recently opened Italian places in San Ramon are reinterpreting neighborhood Italian for the deep 'burbs. They don't try for impeccable nobody's tying up salumi or laying down forty-year-old balsamic. They're more about friendly and accessible, with food that's a predictable, tomato-stained shade of tasty. Perfect for a Tuesday night out.
Sergio Mirabelli and his wife, Francesca, opened Sergio's Trattoria in San Ramon in July, in a strip-mall space with views out to a golden hillside that's plausibly Tuscan. Reopened, technically, since the first Sergio's Trattoria was a fixture in Rockridge from 1996 until 2002. He and Francesca are trying to build a new customer base in a location dramatically unlike College Avenue, here where foot traffic means kids on skateboards from the nearby Canyon Lakes subdivision.
Mirabelli's likable pasta dishes should motivate locals to get into their cars. The pasta tubes in rigatoni alla vodka landed in the right place between tender, elastic, and chewy. The sauce (finely puréed tomatoes and cream, laced with a big slug of vodka) was like some dream version of Kraft mac and cheese: smooth, Creamsicle-orange, and with a deliciously acidic bite.
The house-made pasta is good, too. Ravioli alla Sergio are quintessentially Italian-American. Filled with finely crumbled Italian sausage and dry, fine ricotta curds, they were light and faintly fennel-scented. The stiff pasta was almost crisp where the sheets doubled up along the margins, and a meat-studded red sauce was nicely tangy.
That same sauce lapped at a slab of lasagna Ferrarese, a stack of house-made pasta sheets layered with meat sauce. The top layer of béchamel sauce the menu advertised was missing, which was disappointing. So was the acrid off-note in the meat sauce, a sure sign it'd scorched while cooking. That can happen in a mom-and-pop kitchen, but it's also a sign that the Mirabellis should pare down their sprawling menu and focus on the gems. One of those lurks at the bottom of the salad column. Gorgonzola salad doesn't sound like much, but it radiates a gorgeous austerity: icy-cold greens thick with cheese crumbles, tossed in a simple dressing of cream blended with Gorgonzola.
I admire how Sergio's serves up Italian-American food with authentically Italian spirit. There's always a wild dish of the day not a typical offering for neighborhood Italian. The braised loin of wild boar available on a recent visit tasted as comforting as your nonna's pot roast. A thick, soft slice shattered at the touch of a fork, and the taste had only the faintest musky whiff of boar. It was as tame as beef, and its mild sauce glowed with the glassy clarity of a cornstarch binding. A load of sides crammed the plate: soft mashed potatoes, chunks of boiled russets crisped in the fryer, and the heap of veggie medley that defines the neighborhood restaurant. The effect is very un-Italian.
But the Mirabellis know the value of perceived value. That includes free stuff, like the tiny complimentary shot glasses of cioccolatini a slightly warm chocolate soup flavored with orange zest and marsala and the little glasses of cold, house-made limoncello. They charm you.
Ditto Incontro, another San Ramon Italian place that opened early in the summer. Like the Mirabellis, Gianni Bartoletti and Luigi Troccoli offer food that's filling and accessible. Together they literally cover Italy (Bartoletti is from Piemonte in the north, Troccoli from Puglia in the south). They met during a long stretch of front-of-house gigs in a San Francisco Italian restaurant that Bartoletti is loathe to name. Incontro, which means "encounter," describes their north-south collaboration. The partnership includes their chef, Raul Aguirre, who punched the clock in the same San Francisco restaurant, and whose Central American roots don't quite fit the narrative.
The restaurant is located along burly San Ramon Valley Boulevard, in a space that's suffered from restaurant turnover curse. But the space is newly fresh-looking, thanks to a wash of gold paint, new tile floors, and vermilion geraniums bobbing in window boxes out front.
The seasonal menu is small compared to the one at Sergio's, and there are half a dozen daily specials. The food is more contemporary, more consciously Italian at least the names of the dishes. But even with a dish as exotic-sounding as agnolotti di branzino in salsa rosa (sea bass ravioli in creamy tomato sauce), the effect is strangely familiar. The house-made pasta is sturdy, and the filling, a smooth amalgam of ricotta and finely flaked bass, is a little like soft gefilte fish odd, but I liked it.
Pappardelle de zafferano con ragu di maiale brought more stiff pasta: wide, faintly saffron-flavored noodles tossed with pork stew. Long-cooked pieces of pork shoulder were soft and delicious, even though the pasta was stodgier than I would have wanted.
Everything I tasted here weighed in heavy. An antipasto of crostino della Garfagnana was a thick slice of the dense house-made bread grilled and smeared with stiff white-bean purée. Atop it were sautéed kale, ribbons of shaved pecorino, and a drizzle of truffle oil. Except for the truffle oil, it's the kind of thing you'd slap together from stuff raided from the fridge.
Roasted chicken (pollo piccantino alla potentina) had a lemon-and-chile-flakes seasoning that inflamed the bird's skin nicely. And grilled flatiron steak (tagliata di bue con riduzione al dragoncello) had a sprightly tarragon, shallot, and red wine reduction sauce that made up for the beef's mild flavor.
And even though a panna cotta scattered with preserved cherries was heavy and sticky, an authentically good-natured restaurant like Incontro knows how to ease any disappointment. The owners frequently sweep through the dining room, chatting up the regulars and asking if you need anything else exactly the way the Mirabellis work their tables. It's endearing.
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