We arrived for an early dinner on a recent Saturday, and already Auburn’s Tre Pazzi Trattoria was hopping.
On one side of the dining area – essentially a large square room with tall, street-facing windows – several tables were joined together for what seemed to be a multifamily gathering. Outside, on the front patio along the sidewalk, all the tables were occupied.
There was joy, laughter and plenty of energy. And, oh, did I mention these amazing aromas that were making my olfactory lobe spark and snap and buzz?
Plates of tempting pasta zipped by as I scanned a menu. Nearby, a couple held hands as they made a toast. More and more guests arrived, and eventually some who may have stopped in on a whim were told the restaurant was booked.
This being my initial visit, it wasn’t long before I had this realization: Here was an Italian restaurant that seemed devoted to getting it right. The feel of the room, the carefree but attentive demeanor of the servers and the vibe among the patrons – it all felt legit.
But what about the food? Was it going to be Italian American, which has evolved over many decades into a perfectly respectable and potentially wonderful cuisine in its own right? Or was this charming, casual and energetic restaurant going to be Italian, meaning an authentic representation of what you might find in a trattoria in Tuscany or a cafe in Rome?
And beyond that, would it be any good?
No need to keep you in suspense. This place excels in Italian cooking, and its quality was obvious from top to bottom. The food is prepared with precision and passion, and the wine list of Italian styles is well conceived and affordable.
The hallmarks of Italian cooking are simplicity and sincerity. The ingredients are fresh and focused and even the most involved dishes have no tricks to them. It’s about knowledge, skill, time, passion, flavor and texture – concepts that Tre Pazzi combines and embraces.
While the dining intelligentsia in and around Auburn may already appreciate just how wonderful Tre Pazzi can be, those of us in Sacramento and elsewhere have been largely unaware.
Like Carpe Vino, which is easily one of the region’s best restaurants yet tends to fly under the radar in foodie circles beyond Auburn, Tre Pazzi is such an impressive Italian restaurant that it’s baffling its reputation does not extend farther.
While Sacramento has Biba, an excellent and enduring Italian restaurant at the top rung of fine dining establishments, there aren’t a lot of other more casual Italian restaurants that command our attention. Tre Pazzi can fill that gap.
We began that first dinner with polenta con funghi – creamy (as opposed to firm) polenta topped with a hearty, intensely flavored ragu of wild mushrooms. It was a rustic and refined mix, with the smoothness of the polenta offsetting the tender but chewy mushrooms.
Then there was the serving of mussels – cozze alla napoletana – which we shared. Cooked in white wine with garlic, tomato and red chilies, they were fresh and tender, with just the right touch of spiciness.
While Italian cooking has numerous regional interpretations and influences based on available ingredients and longstanding traditions, the food can be divvied up very broadly as Northern (polenta, milk, butter, rice) and Southern (pasta, olive oil), with a co-mingling of both somewhere in Italy’s middle.
Tre Pazzi show influences from both regions, and we started our meal with the compass pointed north.
While we may think of polenta made with cornmeal as an occasional treat here in the United States, in some parts of Italy it is a daily staple.
We had the creamy white polenta with the dark mushroom sauce to start, then wanted try a firmer style of polenta as a main dish. So we ordered the yellow polenta lasagna. It’s a meatless entree featuring layers of grilled vegetables alternating between thick slabs of polenta, as well as mozzarella and a marinara sauce made of San Marzano tomatoes. For those used to the typical lasagna made with sheets of pasta, this is a more delicate version.
The orcrecchiate alla bolognese features ear-shaped pasta with the famous sauce – or ragu – originating in Bologna. This long-simmering sauce is generally made with ground pork and veal, along with wine, mushrooms and an array of vegetables, all of which build a tremendous depth of flavor and textural richness. The bolognese at Tre Pazzi had a touch of sweetness on the front of the palate and a long, meaty finish. The pasta was perfectly cooked.
The star of this dinner may have been the pappardelle con ragu di cinghiale. This is a beautiful expression of Italian cooking that showcases simplicity, texture, freshness and balance. What a great dish, with the extra-wide ribbons of tender pappardelle pasta covered with a ragu of wild boar that had been simmered in red wine. The sauce of was a dark red that bordered on black, and the flavors were pleasingly salty and astringent, along with the earthiness from the mushrooms. A highly recommended dish if you’re looking for something that marries heartiness and finesse.
We shared a bottle of wine at the table and found that the Ruvei Barbera d’Alba ($35 for the bottle or $10 per glass), recommended by our amiable and very knowledgeable server, paired nicely with multiple dishes, and that its smooth, tangy notes held up nicely to the heartiest ragus. For dessert, the highlight was the almond torte topped with powdered sugar. It is a dense, not overly sweet serving that has an agreeable almond flavor.
Part of the experience at Tre Pazzi is the restaurant’s ambiance, and it was a pleasure to soak it up during the dinner. The server added to the experience. She never rushed, and she didn’t miss a detail. Her skill and personality enhanced the meal.
Our second dinner was of equal quality and, with a different server, was another very fine eating experience.
This time, we focused on meatier dishes – the large Niman Ranch bone-in grilled pork chop in white wine sauce with olives and lemon; and the tender rack of lamb – costole di agnello – cooked medium rare and served with a marinara, green beans and creamy polenta.
The wine we chose was a Super Tuscan by Villa Antinori that was mildly jammy with a smoky note and good structure. Like the barbera, it is a nice selection for $35 and works with much of the menu.
The highlight on this visit was a penne pasta special that our excellent server suggested would be even better with the addition of white anchovies. We took her advice and loved it. The briny, richness of the anchovies was a great complement to the sauce and cheese with the pasta. This was just one of several ways our server was engaged and helpful.
Tre Pazzi gets its name, we are told on the restaurant’s website, from the Pazzi family of nobles in Tuscany who are best known for an elaborate (but unsuccessful) plot to murder Lorenzo de Medici, or Lorenzo the Magnificent, the 15th century ruler of Florence. But there’s no conspiracy with the food here – it’s as straightforward and honest as it can get.
Even though it’s clearly beloved by locals and is often crowded on weekends, Tre Pazzi deserves to be known more widely. For a taste of authentic cooking at a place that is charming and well run, it’s well worth the trip from Sacramento.
Tre Pazzi Trattoria
928 Lincoln Way
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday; 4:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Beverage options: Wine and beer license. The wine list consists of Italian imports in several popular styles at good prices; many bottles $35 and less.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Not specified but manageable
Noise level: Moderate to loud
Ambiance: The seating is at close quarters in a charming room, with patio seating out front. It’s often crowded on weekends and the vibe is lively.
Overall * * * 1/2
For a restaurant that sets out to be a casual trattoria with authentic Italian food, Tre Pazzi nails it. All of the fundamentals of a well-run restaurant are here: superb food, an excellent staff and a pleasant vibe. It’s worth the drive from Sacramento.
Food * * * 1/2
The cooking is very consistent, the flavors are spot on, and the simple elegance of casual Italian cuisine is on display throughout the well-conceived menu. Recommended dishes include the polenta con funghi (polenta with wild mushrooms), the pappardelle with wild boar braised in red wine and the rack of lamb served over a cannellini bean marinara.
Service * * * *
It’s difficult to have an informal vibe and still have great service. The servers not only know the menu and the wine list, they can make detailed suggestions when asked and add a certain charisma to the equation.
Value * * * 1/2
For the quality of the cooking, you’ll be plenty happy with the prices and portions. Most pasta dishes are $12 to $17, the rack of lamb is $21. Pizzas are $9 to $11. Wine prices are reasonable, too.