When we arrived early in the week at this wonderful and understated little place on I Street, two other tables were occupied in a cozy dining room that can accommodate 55.
We began with the smoked salmon bruschetta ($9), served with caramelized onions and long triangles of crisp bread brushed with herbed butter. This was an easy, immediate winner. The salmon was tender and buttery-smooth.
I also had the soup of the day, a lentil with lamb sausage. Very good. The hearty flavors and peppery seasoning lingered on the palate. Perfect for a winter night and it worked nicely with the wine, a barbera d'alba by Renato Ratti ($9.95 for a glass) that had notes of pepper and cherries and an overall smoothness. We liked it enough that we left with a bottle, impressively priced at $18.95 out the door ($39 in the restaurant).
The crowds came. The room gradually filled. The noise heightened but never intruded. I glanced up and noted the cloth on the ceiling, which seems to let sound build without enveloping the space between those talking softly among themselves. Noise control is a detail we don't see often enough on the local dining scene.
I noticed a man eating alone at the counter, reading the paper and chatting with the staff. He's done that for years. A couple walked in on a date. Four friends pulled up chairs at another table. The pasta cooked, the wine flowed (reasonably priced, with a nice little selection heavy on Italian labels you don't see elsewhere), the laughter and conversation lasted till closing.
Michelangelo's is one of those perfect little neighborhood restaurants that has a concept that works, needs to do very little to be better, maintains standards without getting all fussy about it, and pretty much does everything the right way without trying to do more than it is equipped to handle.
(In this case, that means not making its own pasta.)
It also has a server, I am pleased to say, who is now one of my favorites in town full of charisma, enthusiasm, knowledge of the food and wine, and a belief in what this restaurant is all about. Her name is Sarah Jean Fuller, and she made one of my visits an absolute delight, taking what would have been a good experience and elevating everything.
Michelangelo's is not necessarily a destination restaurant, doesn't pretend to be and doesn't price its food to make you think it is anything but a humble, high-quality Italian eatery.
You don't circle the calendar and save up and dress up and think all week about what you will have here. Michelangelo's is a place you might drop in, stop by, happen upon. When you do, it will be ready not to wow but simply to please, time after time.
Those who come for special occasions probably do so because they don't want a lot of fuss and fanfare. Still, they are encouraged to sign their names on the wall in the corner, a quaint tradition that began in 1998, on the second day the restaurant was open. Back then, a man proposed to a woman, she said yes, and Michelangelo's realized it was a sign of good luck to come. Many names are on the wall now.
Much remains the same since those early days, when there was this thing called a dot-com boom, the Kings were winning 60 games a year and California, believe it or not, was trying to find a way to give money back to the taxpayers.
The menu, including cherished family recipes that's Grandma DiDonato's meatball recipe with the raisins and pine nuts, and her version of marinara is much like the one from opening day. Things are added little by little, including an onion tart so good when it was a special that customer response demanded a permanent place for it on the menu. Small plates, too, are new, perhaps the only nod to a trend in area restaurants.
One night, I doubled up on fish and ordered the very nice baked salmon dinner ($16), served in a smooth and buttery broth, with salty capers and scalloped potatoes. Then there was the gnocchi al limone ($14) with sausage (add $5) that was spicy, plentiful and delicious. (The other options are chicken or shrimp.)
The portions were such that we managed only to split dessert, a tiramisu ($6) that was everything this Italian mainstay should be simple, spongy, moist and smooth.
On another, more bustling evening, when Fuller handled our table with aplomb, we had a nightly special, lamb Bolognese ground lamb in a tomato sauce with spaghetti. One companion opted for two small plates to make a meal: the spinach ravioli and the rosemary chicken with polenta. I had the Palermo, which was sausage, onions and peppers in a spicy marinara with penne pasta.
All of it was right on the mark: good ingredients, good flavors, steady, straight-ahead traditional cooking. And Fuller weighed in with her opinions when asked, and we were pretty much blown away by her command of her profession and when people do it this well, it is, indeed, a profession.
A trip to Michelangelo's wouldn't be complete without trying the spaghetti and meatball ($14). That's right, meatball one of them, the size of an orange, that was delicious. Like any Italian dining spot that lasts and lasts without going trending, this is an old recipe that will always be in style.
And that's the way I would sum up this place. Little has changed and little needs to change since I first dropped by on a whim in 1999 with three friends from work.
For those of us who like this kind of friendly, approachable restaurant with good food in a nice room with friendly people who are genuinely happy you've come, I'm betting it stays this way for years and years.
1725 I St., Sacramento; (916) 446-5012; www.sacartz.com
Hours: Open daily. 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday
Full bar: Yes, but limited selection
Overall: 3 stars (good)
This is what a neighborhood restaurant is all about reliable, welcoming and warm, with good food that always pleases without trying to show off.
Service: 3 stars (good)
For the most part, it's friendly and understated. In one case, the server has star quality.
Ambience: 3 stars (good)
The feel is cozy with an emphasis on art, especially the big guy, Michelangelo. Seating is close-knit. The noise is pleasant and controlled.
Food: 3 stars (good)
Tired of trendy menus that all look alike? This is good, old-fashioned Italian cooking. I've enjoyed every dish I've tried. Try the spaghetti and meatball or the Palermo.
Value: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
Every entree is under $20, and there are plenty of small plates in the $6-to-$8 range you can combine to make a meal.
Noteworthy: The restaurant was the brainchild of the late Gregory Barton and other family members. It opened in 1998 and remains in the Barton family, which also owns the art gallery next door.