Allen Pierleoni / apierleoni@sacbee.com

Thin-crust pizza topped with fresh mussels, clams, Roma tomatoes and arugula turned out to be the day's best dish among some good ones at Café Vinoteca. Then again, it wasn't the last Thursday of the month, when it is a big night for timpano.

Counter Culture: Café Vinoteca a tasty choice for pizza and pasta

Published: Friday, Apr. 27, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 36TICKET

"I love pie, and this is a great one," said lunch pal Bruce Parks, quickly demolishing (with a little help) a tall wedge of banana cream pie.

He should know. Bruce and wife Judy Parks run an international gourmet cake-delivery business (www. chocolatebakery.com) and an online bakery (www. tartsandtruffles.com). Judy has taught baking classes at American River College for 20 years, and lucky Bruce gets to sample.

"The only thing we didn't make (in the kitchen) for this pie was the bananas," said our beyond-the-call-of-duty server, Dawna Paul.

Any chance of initiating a pie fight with the pie-eating folks at the table next to us? You know – act now, apologize later.

"No, because I would have to clean it up," Dawna said.

We were at a window-side table inside Café Vinoteca at Arden Town Center. The Italian bistro's immediate neighbors are Chinois City Cafe (www.chinoiscitycafe.com) and Danielle's Creperie (www. daniellescreperie.com), places we've visited and liked.

Café Vinoteca is a high- energy neighborhood kind of place, largely populated with regulars who know each other by sight, if not by name. It may have a local angle, but its fare easily competes with higher-end, more-formal Italian restaurants in our area.

Its lengthy lunch menu shows soups and salads (grilled prawn Louie, grilled romaine lettuce), small plates (meatball sliders, Kobe beef carpaccio), panini (eggplant Parmesan, grilled chicken), pasta (much of it house-made, served with mild, subtle sauces), and soup-salad-panini combos. Prices range from $4 to $16.

The from-scratch mushroom ravioli had sold out at dinner the night before, so we started with a small plate of gnocchi – tender pasta pillows in Alfredo sauce (with a dash of nutmeg), a fine mix. For the heck of it, we added grilled and sliced Molinari-brand Italian sausage – crispy and fragrant, with ideal texture. Good start.

We were still in a pasta mood, so moved to spaghetti carbonara, a concoction likely created in Rome in the 1950s. Or not. Like so many dishes that have come out of Italy, its roots are hard to dig up. Which doesn't matter, since it's always so darn good.

For this version, a well-whisked whole raw egg is mixed with hot pasta water and grated Parmesan cheese, then poured over and mixed with steaming spaghetti and topped with crisp pieces of pancetta (Italian bacon). We added freshly ground black pepper to the al dente pasta and rich sauce. Hey – where'd that go?

Clam-topped pizza is an everyday item in the pizzerias of New York and New Jersey. But finding a pizza loaded with clams and mussels in California brought us up short.

The menu description says, "Spicy white wine and tomato sauce, shaved fennel, basil, garlic." We consulted and ended up asking the kitchen to tweak the pizza and surprise us.

Turned out to be the best dish of the day. The chef brushed olive oil over a thin crisp-crust shell, added slices of fresh Roma tomato, peppery arugula, sautéed fennel, garlic and a touch of heat from red pepper flakes. Topping all that were plump, expertly handled clams and mussels (out of their shells, of course).

"Everything about this is a home run, especially the freshness of the ingredients," Bruce said. Agreed.

One of three daily specials was bucatini (bigger than spaghetti, and hollow) with smoked salmon in a creamy dill-and-caper sauce. The luscious chunks of salmon were mildly salty, the capers super-salty. Did the salt from the capers infuse the salmon with salt, or was the salmon already salty? Did the kitchen mistakenly add salt to the dish when none was called for? Whatever, a salt overload was going on.

Imagination and tradition seem to meet in Café Vinoteca's kitchen. One example is its timpano, a classic Italian dish served only at dinner the last Thursday of each month.

To see one being built, watch the 1996 movie "Big Night," starring Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver and Isabella Rosselini.

Or listen to Janie Desmond Ison, co-owner with husband Jim of Café Vinoteca and the more casual Steamers in Old Sacramento (www. steamersoldsac.com).

"We line a huge kettle with puff pastry and layers of penne pasta, sliced ham, meatballs, grilled zucchini and eggplant, hard-cooked eggs, and marinara and béchamel sauces," she explained. "It's wrapped in more pastry, baked in the kettle and served by the slice ($18). It's like an adventure on your plate – you don't know where you're going next."

We've had it. We love it. We'll be back for more.

CAFÉ VINOTECA

Where: Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento, in the Arden Town Center, Watt Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard

Hours: Lunch is 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner is 4-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, and until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Food: three 1/2 stars

Ambience: three stars

How much: $-$$

Information: (916) 487-1331, www.cafevinoteca.com

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