About one in four restaurants go out of business within a year of opening. This happens for all kinds of reasons. The concept is wrong. The food or service is substandard. The location is bad. The inexperienced owners thought it would be a fun way to get rich and didn’t realize all the hard work involved.
Giusti’s, on the other hand, is the little Walnut Grove restaurant that keeps going and going. Its success might seem confounding or counterintuitive to some. Not everything about this place will make sense to everyone. One in four people, perhaps, will just not get it – and that’s probably fine by all the locals who do.
Not only has Giusti’s and its Italian American cuisine survived world wars, the Great Depression, the energy crisis, economic downturns, floods and all kinds of food trends, it continues to thrive as a family-run, quirky, curmudgeonly, quintessentially Delta hole-in-the-wall where the people are sincere, the food is solid and the building only looks as if it’s about to blow into the Sacramento River.
Giusti’s didn’t survive by latching onto every trend that comes along. Credit cards, for instance. It doesn’t take them. Many first-timers will find that annoying, if not alarming. Beer on tap? Not here. Desserts are not a Giusti’s thing, either.
Reservations? Nope. You’ll probably have to wait for a table on weekends during the summer months. But there’s a full bar, they make a stiff drink at a decent price and, if you look up at the ceiling, you can spend your time wondering why there are 1,200 baseball hats nailed to it. If that doesn’t hold your interest, you can browse the 300-plus framed pieces of memorabilia on the walls.
In the Delta, 30 minutes from downtown Sacramento, it’s an entirely different world. The people are without pretense and, so it seems, fiercely independent.
The dinner menu is as straightforward as it gets – fried chicken, pasta, two kinds of steak, veal cutlet, fried prawns – and the portions are hearty. The cooking is skillful and consistent, but it’s far from fussy or modern. Then there are the specials. Here’s where things can get a little more complicated, and it will take more than a few visits before you figure out what’s what.
To expedite things, I enlisted Samuel Rainwater – Sammy the Chef – to help navigate the Giusti’s way of eating. Sammy has been there for 14 years and, among other things, is credited with adding ahi tuna salad to the menu.
“We were trying to attract a younger crowd,” he explained. “I said, ‘Everyone likes sushi these days.’ So we started getting yellow fin tuna.”
Sammy notes that every Wednesday it’s two-for-one lobster tails – plump, tasty, tender, warm-water lobster that’s braised in the oven at 500 degrees. On the second Tuesday of every month, it’s lamb shanks (floured, seasoned and braised for hours, then served over polenta). Tripe is served on the third Wednesday of the month. Sammy refers to it as “Italian menudo.”
If you have favorites, you’ll learn when they’re being served. The rack of lamb was a special one night we were there and it’s terrific – thick, tender meat clinging to each bone, seasoned simply with salt and pepper and cooked perfectly. The thick serving of salmon also is prepared simply; it’s pan-fried and seasoned with restraint to let the fish’s flavor be the focal point. The rib-eye steak is large and juicy and covered with sautéed mushrooms and blue cheese.
The spaghetti sauce is the real deal, simmered with flavors that are nicely balanced. The fried chicken is stylistically consistent with the rest of Giusti’s food. There are no tricks or gimmicks. It’s good chicken, lightly floured and gently seasoned, then fried in hot oil until it’s crisp and golden and nothing more, served with a baked potato.
During recent visits we ordered all kinds of dishes – many that rotate on and off the menu according to what day it is. The cooking is consistent, classic and results in straight-ahead food that was never trendy and will never go out of fashion.
Those who have not visited before may be startled by the little extras that appear at the table. The large bowl of green salad, the minestrone soup with the ladle, the very tasty garbanzo beans and the excellent crispy-crust bread are all meant to be passed around and shared before the arrival of the entrees.
The lunch menu changes daily, and visitors are advised to call ahead if they’re looking for something specific. Depending on the day, you’ll find such dishes as a grilled pork chop, grilled oysters and a crab salad sandwich. The burger and pasta dishes are mainstays.
At times, I have criticized restaurants that rest on their laurels and don’t evolve. Last week, I said as much about 33rd Street Bistro. Giusti’s is entirely different. Unlike 33rd Street, it never set out to be trend-setting. Giusti’s knows what it is, and that’s all it wants to be.
It’s defiantly old-school, but not in a dusty, disconnected way, like Sacramento’s time-warp eatery Trails, which has largely lost its heartbeat. Giusti’s superior cooking, enthusiastic staff and strong, honest connection to its environs give it a vital (if low-key) energy.
Locals love the place. Most of the clientele is from the surrounding 10-mile area. During the summer months, many arrive by boat, cruising along the channel and docking just below the restaurant. It’s a laid-back, unhurried and very Delta way of going to dinner. And that goes for the closing time. When does it close? That depends. It’s best to call ahead if that might be an issue.
The clientele is what you might imagine. This is not a place where you dress up for dinner, though it’s just eccentric enough that you won’t feel out of place if you do. Most of the servers have worked there for more than 10 years, and one or two of them are bound to call you “honey.”
When you walk in, you’ll notice that it’s a little dark and the floors and walls are rickety. There’s a large bar and most of its stools are usually occupied. It’s easy to relax here and have a good time. One evening, the wait for a table was more than 30 minutes. On another, we nabbed one in five.
The hats on the ceiling are something of a local legend by now. Regulars probably don’t even notice them anymore, unless they’re bringing new visitors and want to point out their own hat up there. Our Delta friend was quick to locate his orange golf cap, lamenting for a moment that he no longer gets to wear it.
“It is apparent that we are the dumping grounds for trucker hats,” the restaurant’s website states. “Our ceiling is very colorful, to say the least.”
On a whim in the early 1980s, owner Mark Morais decided to put several caps he had been given on the ceiling. The idea caught on and customers started to contribute their lids. When Rio Vista and Delta high schools faced budget cuts and possible closure, Morais, a former Delta High sports star in the ’60s, decided to hold a raffle for the hats as a fundraiser. Word spread, and it got on the TV news. The drawing raised $25,000 and the winners decided the hats needed to remain where they were.
That’s the kind of quirky spirit that defines Giusti’s, which has thrived as a family-run business and Delta institution for more than a century. It’s not a place that will appeal to everyone. And thank goodness for that.
14743 Walnut Grove-Thornton Road
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday (lunch); 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (lunch); 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (dinner, call for closing time); 4 p.m. Sunday (dinner, call for closing time).
Beverage options: Full bar, small but balanced wine choices, minimal craft beer and no beer on draft.
Vegetarian friendly: Minimal but kitchen takes requests.
Noise level: Moderate.
Ambiance: Nothing fancy here. The building is 100-plus years old, weathered, rickety and loaded with memorabilia. There are 1,200 baseball caps tacked to the ceiling in the bar.
Overall * * * (out of 4 stars)
This family-owned Italian-American restaurant has endured and thrived as a Delta institution for more than a century. It’s quirky, sincere and charming and the food is consistent, unfussy and always done right. Regulars call it home away from home; newcomers come to experience the quintessential vibe of a Delta hideaway.
Food * * *
This is solid, traditional, hearty, family-style fare with an emphasis on Italian American cooking. The steaks, pasta and fried chicken are all nicely done, and the various specials, including two-for-one lobster tails, braised lamb shanks and pizza are enduring favorites for regulars. The kitchen also takes requests if you call ahead.
Service * * *
Many of the employees have worked here 10 years or more. The owners are hands-on. It adds up to friendly, informal and sometimes charming service.
Value * * *
The rib eye steak and rack of lamb special are $28.50, a small pizza is $10.50, fried chicken is $16.50. Lobster for two is $30.50 on Wednesdays. The extra value comes in the ample portions of salad, soup, plate of garbanzo beans and bread provided with the meal.
Noteworthy: The restaurant does not accept credit cards.