There are Piatti Ristorantes in several appealing locales, among them Mill Valley, La Jolla, Seattle and Denver.
But Sacramento has something those others lack – a giant picture window at the front of the restaurant with a can't-miss view of McDonald's.
And when you get tired of that, your eyes can scan over to Supercuts while you nosh on your overly sweet butternut squash ravioli or devour your delicious and sophisticated creamy polenta topped with a poached egg and bits of crunchy, gently fried kale.
Piatti, part of a boutique restaurant chain, has reopened after undergoing a significant renovation – some of it good and some of it resulting in unfortunate, even boneheaded, design elements that just might sour the dining experience.
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We left our three recent visits to Piatti in the upscale Pavilions shopping center a bit baffled by the remodel and underwhelmed by the inconsistent food – some good, some misguided, some poorly executed, nothing excellent and little we'll ever remember.
The room, the cooking and the decent but unexceptional service don't go nearly far enough. Amid the many ups and downs, what's clear is that Piatti has fallen further behind the standards set by both the new and established restaurants in east Sacramento and midtown just a few miles away.
Piatti's does enough to qualify as a neighborhood restaurant for Italian cuisine ranging from marginal to good, but it certainly isn't the dining destination we anticipated.
Whether it's with the menu or with the room, one fundamental of good design is that it guides the eye toward a business's strengths, not its weaknesses. The worst part of Piatti is that it faces a busy, four-lane, pedestrianless Fair Oaks Boulevard. That's a shortcoming that could easily be downplayed by getting us to face the appealing, even cozy courtyard.
Likewise, the centerpiece of casual Italian fare, one might assume, would be its pasta. Here, the spaghetti and meatballs had an odd, off-putting foundation of seasonings that nearly made us wince. Was it sweet? Yes. Was it earthy? I suppose. Did it taste anything remotely like tomato? Nope.
By contrast, the flavors for the fettuccine in a saffron broth with garlic prawns was pleasing, with a lively blend of seafood and aromatic notes on the palate. But the pasta itself was flawed. Rather than al dente, wherein the bite is firm yet pliable, this was stiff and brittle and unpleasant. We had vastly superior pasta just recently at the new and exciting Hook & Ladder.
On a previous visit to Piatti, we had more mixed results. The half-chicken with a crispy skin was top-notch, stacked rather artfully on the plate atop some delicious and tender leaves of Brussels sprouts mixed with bits of bacon and a tasty pan sauce. Since chicken can be ho-hum, we appreciated the edgy and inventive approach to filling out the rest of the plate.
But that dish only served to balance out the salmon, an overcooked, dried-up eyesore that never should have left the kitchen. Was it a busy night and this one slipped through? Or are the standards that low? Beneath the fish was "cavolo nera," or Tuscan kale. In either language, it was cold in the middle.
Piatti is uneven to a fault. Even our greetings were oddly inconsistent. Once, a man in a sweater walked rather forcefully toward us, a stern look on his face. A Match.com date gone south? Turns out, he worked there. He asked us if we had a reservation, we said no, and he managed to find us a table anyway – with a view of the aforementioned McDonald's.
The hosting skills were better the other two times, even if on our final visit we were led to a table for two within inches of a two-top table where a middle-age man and woman were making out.
To heck with McDonald's – I couldn't escape our very own peep show in the middle of a crowded, well-lit restaurant.
We asked for another table. I was tempted to satirize the great "When Harry Met Sally" line and say, "I'll have what they're having," but I feared they would bring me a plate of deep-fried mozzarella sticks and a glass of white zin with ice cubes.
Several of the tables are Euro-close, which, frankly is only cool when you're in Europe, or at least someplace where space is an issue.
This is a suburban setting, Sacramento's gateway to gated communities. No one walks here. Everything is spread out. The only thing European about it is the word "ristorante." Arranging tables so that I am sitting closer to a stranger than to my significant other is another aspect of poor design.
Desserts? We had several, but liked only two – a bread pudding with caramel because of the hearty texture and soothing flavor, and a mint-flavored chocolate cake (it's not on the regular menu) for the elegant combination of simple-yet-vivid flavor.
A couple of the desserts were dreadful. Who thinks it's a good idea to put a tiramisu in a small jar? The only thing worse? A New York cheesecake in a jar. Yes, we ate it and hated everything about it, including the sour mystery-fruit purée on top.
I looked up from my meager jar of cheesecake, past the couple pawing at each other and out to the street at McDonald's.
And I felt let down, maybe bewildered, by this new and improved Piatti.
571 Pavilions Lane, Sacramento
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 11:30 a.m.- 9 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Full bar
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Noise level: Moderate to loud; conversation at close tables might be distracting.
Overall: Two stars (out of four stars)
While Piatti has undergone a major remodel of its building, we found too many ups and downs with the food and other elements to be wowed by the dining experience. More consistency in the kitchen easily brings up this rating.
Food: Two stars
Sometimes good, sometimes not. That's not the way to compete with restaurants within miles that really showcase high standards on a consistent level. The half-chicken was one of our favorites but can be found many places. What dishes are going to define Piatti as something special? The wine list is balanced for price and style, with several Italian wines, and plenty of bottles for those on a budget in the $24-$38 range. Nice selection of craft beer, including local breweries.
Service: Two 1/2 stars
Friendly and knowledgable, the servers here do their jobs well, but we never saw service rise to the level common at the better restaurants – polished recommendations, detailed explanations of cooking techniques and ingredients.
Ambience: Two stars
If there was ever a fine line between love and hate, it is with this remodel. While the decor is lovely, the giant window with a view of nothing but a McDonald's is a design faux pas that's hard to overlook. The patio is pleasant, especially on Thursdays, when guests with dogs receive a discount. I wish our dogs had been there to eat my overcooked salmon.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @blarob.