The 400,000-member-strong National Restaurant Association reminds us that the three most popular ethnic cuisines in U.S. restaurants are Italian, Mexican and Chinese.
We chose Italian the other day and dropped by the small Vaiano, in a fading strip mall in Granite Bay. It's named after the Tuscan village (population 9,500-plus) and hometown of Patrizia Russo-Hickok. She and husband Nathan Hickok co-own the trattoria.
"Most of our (recipes) are based on what Patrizia grew up with in Vaiano," Nathan Hickok said. "(Our menu) is very Tuscan. Our lasagna, for example, is made with just pasta, meat sauce, bechamel sauce and Parmesan. You don't readily encounter (such a version)."
One menu covers both lunch and dinner, and the portions are substantial for the prices charged. Note, too, that most of the pasta is imported from the family-owned Barilla food company, though some of the daily-special pasta (such as gnocchi) is handmade.
We began with expertly handled, absolutely fresh Manila clams in a tasty broth of white wine, shallots and garlic ($12).
For ravioli Fiorentina (a.k.a. Florentine), ricotta- and spinach-stuffed pasta pillows were covered in a super-rich Bolognese sauce ($12). "The mellow flavors make it a comfort food," said my lunch pal.
Though the linguine primavera with prawns was hearty, the cream sauce with peas, carrots, zucchini and bell pepper came out too sweet for our taste ($14). Our server quickly obliged a request for freshly ground black pepper, which added some zip. The plump prawns were perfectly cooked.
There was so much spicy, from-scratch tomato sauce in the ramekin of chicken cacciatore that the meaty but tough-ish chicken breast was mostly hidden beneath it ($14). Tasty nonetheless.
Next time, we'll try the zuppa de pesche, a.k.a. cioppino. It's not on the menu, but available.
"It was originally a winter special, but so many people keep asking for it that I'll have to put it on the menu full-time," Nathan Hickok said. Shrimp, calamari, clams, mussels and white fish are cooked in a tomato-based broth with white wine and garlic ($19).
Hungry in San Francisco
On Saturday, we were immersed in the energy and carnival-like atmosphere along the Embarcadero in front of AT&T Park in San Francisco. Inside, we found the food scene more exciting than the Giants' 10-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Let's see wurst of all kinds, including Sheboygan brats, kielbasa, hot links and kosher franks; grilled Dungeness crab sandwich; hand-carved brisket, tri-tip and turkey with jus; and tacos and jerk chicken. But really $5 for a bottle of water?
We could tell we were in California when a vendor walked by, hawking "Peanuts, Cracker Jack sunflower seeds!"
Outside, restaurants abound on and around the South of Market waterfront, including the down-home Town's End (great omelets and corned beef hash; www.townsendrb.com) and Momo's, whose outside deck was so jammed on game day that two security dudes were stationed out front for crowd control (www.sfmomos.com).
The next day, a brisk walk took us to South Park, a residential neighborhood dating to 1855. There, we were in line for the 10 a.m. opening of the Michelin- recommended The Butler & the Chef Bistro.
The tiny place calls itself "the only authentic French bistro in San Francisco," though it serves domestic Niman Ranch ham instead of imported jambon (in Sacramento, French ham is $16.99 a pound at Corti Bros. Market, 5810 Folsom Blvd.; 916-736-3800). The mediocre croissants are baked off-site, but the heavy buckwheat crepes are prepared in-house. I had questions later, but phone calls were not returned.
The B&C certainly emits a Parisian vibe, with its clattering kitchen, jammed tables (no groups over six, no reservations, no quiche on this day), charming wall decor and French-accented wine list.
The star at breakfast is eggs Benedict choose from glistening salmon, ham and vegetarian. The Benedicts were gorgeous, with excellent Hollandaise sauce, organic eggs and toasted slices of organic olive bread in place of English muffin halves ($12 to $16). By the way, food historians say the Benedict originated in the late 1800s at either Delmonico's or the Waldorf Hotel, both in New York City.
An airy Belgian waffle was overdusted with powdered sugar and made sweeter still with French blueberry compote, more a dessert than a breakfast item ($9). Rescuing the dish was a side of hot, thin slices of that delicious ham.
The lunch and dinner menus show items we thought were more Gallic eight sandwiches on baguettes involving combinations of brie, Emmenthal (from Switzerland), tuna, chicken and paté; charcuterie; and croques monsieur and mademoiselle. Mais oui.
The Butler & the Chef, 155 S. Park, (415) 896-2075, www.butlerandthechef.com.
Where: 7160 Douglas Blvd., Granite Bay
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 5-10 p.m. Saturdays; 5-9 p.m. Sundays
Food: Two 1/2 Stars
Ambience: Two 1/2 Stars
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 780-0888, www.vaianoitalian.com