At the risk of sounding like a Yelper tapping out a review with his thumbs on a smartphone, I really, really wanted to like this place.
For one thing, it's in Rancho Cordova, an underappreciated culinary destination if there ever was one. It's tucked inside a corporate chain hotel, too, where they tend to erect a firewall between the restaurant and the real community beyond and where they typically suck the life out of anything to do with charm or style.
It's called Formaggio Taverna and Patio, which really just sounds like a contrived, semi-pretentious concept of nothingness dreamed up at corporate headquarters.
Despite my high hopes for this artificial underdog to rise up and amount to something better than banal, it turns out that certain forces make it hard to fall for Formaggio.
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Our first visit for dinner was a ho-hum affair in which we received tepid, sometimes forgetful service. Yes, our server was a double threat – she had a pulse and she had a pen, but not much else was going on. We ate a decent thin-crust pizza, an average steak and a practically tasteless plate of pappardelle pasta. The soup I ordered never arrived. Halfway through the meal, a new server took over without explanation, and she was a major upgrade in personality and experience.
I decided to up the ante for the next visit. I wanted to live a little.
Dining al fresco under the stars and within earshot of the pool filtration system would be so sublime. In fact, I was really looking forward to eating poolside at the Marriott, so much so that I could practically smell the chlorine and imagine the roar of the nearby highway overpass.
The actual patio experience is so vaunted here that it has its own link on the hotel website called "Outdoor dining," which is full of chestnuts – "a gem in the heart of Rancho Cordova," "yet another dining experience," "an outdoor dining oasis," and most intriguing of all, "beautiful charming patio umbrellas."
I checked the weather on my phone: warm and sunny all weekend, ideal conditions for opening up a beautiful charming patio umbrella at just the right moment.
We got there plenty early so we could watch the sun set and cast long, lazy shadows upon the heart of Rancho Cordova. We brought sweaters. On the way there from downtown Sacramento, I spotted people at several restaurants sitting outdoors.
This was going to be great – yet another dining experience.
Then the bad news. Why does there have to be bad news?
"We'd like to eat outside," I said to the host, smiling and craning my neck toward the oasis.
"No?" I asked, thinking maybe that what she said was Italian taverna-speak for "yes."
"It's too cold."
"Too cold? Siri, is it cold out?" I asked, seeking affirmation as I whispered into my iPhone.
"It's 72 degrees. I don't find that particularly cold," Siri replied.
But this was not a fight we could win. There would be no oasis, no amazing umbrellas. One of the ways to remind guests of your corporate-ness is to tell them they can't do things that seem eminently doable.
Nevertheless, we were shown to the same booth we occupied 21 hours earlier. This time, it felt like we were in a time-out. And oops, the same server forgot for the second night running to tell us about the dinner special. There was no effort to connect with us in any meaningful way. It was as if we were from Topeka or Toledo and would never be back.
This hotel eatery, like many others throughout the land, has a captive audience – traveling business people who eat alone, parents and their kids coming for a soccer tournament, groups reserving the ballrooms for conventions or meetings, an 8-year-old baton-twirling fiend in the lobby who almost knocked me upside my head with a wayward spin move.
The second dinner was marginally better than the first, rising to the level of fair and mostly forgettable. The meatball appetizer stuffed with gorgonzola was bland, dry and $8 we could have spent on a good, stiff drink. The $25 pork chop dinner was slightly overcooked and ridiculously overzealous – two thick chops plunked side by side on the plate and covered in tasty caramelized apples. It was way too much food, yet not interesting enough to make us think we were getting a bargain, even with the tasty summer squash on the side.
The best dish was the basa filet ($22), a lightly breaded, perfectly cooked and seasoned white fish placed atop some flavorful, velvety risotto and next to carrots, fingerling potatoes and squash with a white wine sauce. Yes, it was a lot of components on one plate, but the lightness of the fish helped it along.
The next best dish was a pasta – ear-shaped orecchiette with a mildly seasoned tomato sauce, sun-dried tomatoes and small pieces of pork. It was simple, toothsome and tasty.
There is a decorating scheme along one wall featuring wine bottles painted with "cheap," "decent" or "good." That sums up the small wine list, which was noteworthy for its focus on regional labels.
Then came breakfast, for the hotel dining experience isn't complete without mounds of pale scrambled eggs sitting in a hot plate. Our host this time was much more engaging, though we didn't dare ask about the outdoor experience. We ordered the buffet, which was $15 I could have spent on two very stiff drinks. I got a browned omelet and a waffle that wasn't nearly as good as our old reliable waffle at Harry's Cafe.
When we walked into Formaggio, we were greeted with applause. I assumed we were the first repeat customers in the restaurant's four-year history, but that was not the case. About two dozen folks from a Toastmasters group had taken over part of the room. Toastmasters, apparently, is not affiliated with EtiquetteMasters. It was the end of a meaningful journey for the participants and each was asked to share his or her most memorable moment. People laughed at things that may or may not have been funny and applauded things that wouldn't get a golf clap in the real world. I craned to hear if anyone brought up the outdoor dining experience or the umbrellas.
For me, it was all pretty forgettable. Still, whenever someone asks me why I won't be going back to this oasis in the heart of Rancho Cordova for yet another dining experience amid beautiful charming umbrellas, I'm sure I'll come up with something.
Formaggio Taverna and Patio
11211 Point East Drive, Rancho Cordova
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily (Limited menu until 11 p.m.). Dinner starts at 5 p.m.
Beverage options: Full bar.
Vegetarian friendly? Yes.
Noise level: Moderate, unless the Toastmasters have another flash mob.
Overall ★ ★ (out of four stars)
Solid cooking, safe menu, decent wine list, hit-or-miss service. It all adds up to an OK experience that could be significantly better.
Food ★ ★
The lightly breaded fish dinner was impressive, as was one of two pasta dishes we tried – the papardelle was far too bland. Thin-crust pizza was decent. The wine list had a surprising number of regional choices. Just don't expect any insights on the wines or on wine pairings from the servers.
Service ★ ★
Oddly uneven, from the better servers to the ones who will soon realize this is not going to be a career. It's just not as snappy, polished, personable or attentive as the places with good and great service.
Ambience ★ ★
It's a fairly open room with large, U-shaped booths and a small bar with two TV screens. The highly touted outdoor dining experience? We asked, we pleaded, but to no avail.
Value ★ ★
The pizzas, suitable for two, are $14 and $15, which is on par with the competition. Dinner entrees range from $20 for a chicken dish to $30 for lamb. Our $25 pork chop dinner was ridiculously oversized and would have been better with one thick chop (instead of two) for $18. Continued on Page 6Continued from Page 5