In the 13 months Capital Dime has been open, its defining characteristic has been change.
First, it was the farm-to-fork-on-a-budget restaurant with the clever name and concept that focused on quality food for 10 bucks. Then it became a quasi fine-dining restaurant, with the “dime” conceit put on pause, and some dishes, such as rack of lamb, approaching $30. Then it morphed again, this time into an ailing, sputtering eatery, with kitchen execution at an all-time low and an absence of enthusiasm all around.
Earlier this summer, with the restaurant on life support, the ownership team reached out to the folks at Broderick Roadhouse in West Sacramento. Chris Jarosz, Broderick’s co-owner and humble visionary, agreed to take over day-to-day operations and an ownership stake at Capital Dime and sister spot Trick Pony (see review), the new, ambitious pizzeria that became an early punch line among foodies.
At Capital Dime, Jarosz revamped the menu, recast the midtown space to make it feel more casual and a bit warmer, hired an experienced bartender and gave the operation a tighter focus.
And guess what? It’s working.
Jarosz has returned Capital Dime to what it set out to be from the beginning, a place where most items on the menu are $10 – or “farm-to-fork on a dime.” For now, that means the star is burgers – some really good burgers (without fries, which are extra). Jarosz says the food options will continue to evolve, with small plates priced at $10 rotating on and off the menu.
Some of the Dime’s early key players have moved on, including Noah Zonca, once the star chef at high-profile The Kitchen Restaurant. Zonca left in February. He was replaced by Stan Moore, another alumnus of The Kitchen, who departed only recently.
Jarosz, who also co-owns the popular food truck Wicked ’Wich, has his work cut out for him, but he just might be the right kind of unorthodox thinker for the job. In June of 2013, I wrote that Broderick “manages to pull all of its disparate, desperate and offbeat elements together, shake them up, spin them around and turn them into something that really works.” It continues to be quirky, distinctive, funky, fun and all-around delicious.
Five weeks into this challenge, Jarosz is trying to bring some of that magic to the heart of midtown.
He’s not there yet, but he’s playing to his strengths, which is a combination of farm-to-fork sincerity, a distinctive palate, an unpretentious way of looking at food and an edgy approach. I’m thinking about the Johnny Cash burger at Broderick, big and juicy and over the top; the banh mi fries, that are a wonderful mess of flavor; and the oddly delicious mac and cheese that is finished in the pan so it’s caramelized and crispy and really tasty.
The best dish so far at Capital Dime 2.0 (or is it 3.0? 4.0?) is the duck burger. Second best is the whiskey burger with extra-thick slices of bacon, followed closely by the lamb burger with a lively sauce straight out of Lebanese cuisine.
Yes, that’s a lot of burgers. And on a recent visit, I happened to be dining with a friend who announced moments after sitting down that she’s pretty much over burgers. But two bites into this tender duck burger with a jammy fig sauce and ample amounts of peppery arugula, her foodie frown had been turned upside down.
Yes, the duck burger is something special. There’s a noticeably different taste and texture to the patty, a telltale richness that combines nicely with the sweet and tart sauce. It’s served on a pleasingly fluffy and airy onion roll from Village Bakery. When you put it all together, you have a burger that could become a signature dish at Dime.
The only problem is it’s not a dime – it’s $12. Yes, those darn food costs tend to thwart that cute “dime” gimmick, which is not immune to things like inflation. Throw in fries ($5) and you’re looking at $17, which makes it one of the most expensive burgers in the city (and $5 more than the fantastic burger at Formoli’s Bistro).
Same goes for the fantastic lamb burger. Here, Jarosz made a blend of seven spices to create a sauce that has a Lebanese/North African flavor profile – sweet and earthy with a tangy finish. The sauce makes the lamb burger distinctive, the flavors enhancing the mild meat.
I was surprised to see a “whiskey burger” on the menu ($11) because that’s the name of Aimal Formoli’s signature burger. Jarosz says he has never tried it. Rather than use whiskey in the searing of the meat to create a bit of caramelized sweetness, as Formoli does, Jarosz puts a splash of fire water in the sauce, which is equal parts sweet and peppery hot. Along with the bacon, which is exceptionally meaty and delicious, this pepper-crusted Niman Ranch beef burger is superb.
The appetizers are hit or miss. We had the special smoked cheddar and cauliflower pierogies ($10), which were excellent. But the bacon lollipops didn’t make the favorites list. Sure they were scrumptious, seasoned with brown sugar, cayenne and cinnamon, but the four lollipops were so tiny as to be laughable, even for $5.
Because of its location, it’s imperative that the Dime get its drinks straight. A new bartender, Len Peterson, is serving craft cocktails that may not be as fussy or precious as those at some of the better-known spots in town. The white linen, made with gin, elderflower liqueur, lemon and cucumber, was balanced and inviting – much better than the one we had there months earlier. The beer list is small, with some local offerings. The wine list is a work in progress, but Jarosz says he wants to excel in this realm.
Desserts have always been an issue with Capital Dime. At the beginning, founding chef and part-owner Zonca said he wasn’t doing desserts because Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates was next door. He forgot, apparently, that if we wanted dessert, we would have to stop buying more drinks and other things at Capital Dime and vacate the premises, which is never good for the bottom line.
Jarosz is intent on doing desserts. They’re just not on the menu yet. He’s thinking homestyle comfort food like cobblers.
He also knows he needs to do something about the ambiance. The acoustics are dreadful. Four of us found it challenging to have a decent conversation. We waited until we were out on the sidewalk to compare notes. We agreed that Capital Dime had come back from the dead, that its menu now made sense, its food was often good and that the place was trending in the right direction.
Here’s a pizzeria that got off to a cringe-worthy start. Even before it opened, one of the owners, Rick Lobley, told The Bee that he was tired of driving two hours to get really good pizza. To which many foodies promptly replied “Say what?” – wondering if Lobley was willfully ignorant or just merely clueless about the very good pizza spots in town.
Here’s the thing about pizza: It seems simple, but it’s illusive. The crust only has a few ingredients, but you have to manage time, temperature and texture. You can learn that in a book, but it takes years to develop and hone the craft. At the highest level, making pizza is equal parts science and intuition. You sense things. You feel the dough with your hands. None of this happens overnight.
Before Trick Pony opened this spring, the newly hired chef, Paul Caravelli, was posting pictures on Facebook showing test batches of his pizzas, looking and sounding as if he had never really made pizza before. This is what was going to make us forget about Hot Italian, OneSpeed, Masullo, Matteo’s, Hook & Ladder and others? Hardly. Caravelli, a colorful character and once a contestant on the TV show “The Taste,” is no longer at Trick Pony.
Unlike Capital Dime, which is trending upward, this pizzeria is treading water. The menu is unchanged from those early, uneven days. The thin-crust pizza, baked in a wood-fired oven the restaurant inherited from the former Tuli Bistro, is sometimes pretty good and sometimes pretty so-so.
The key feature so far is the annoying ploy of not cutting the pies before serving them. We’re told that’s how they do it in Italy and that it tastes noticeably better. That’s a ridiculous thing to say.
This is Sacramento, not Naples. You take our orders with an iPad and stare at a TV screen with the sound down while seated at the counter, so please, spare us the posturing about how they do things in Italy. Yes, they eat their Neapolitan pizzas with a knife and fork. Americans tend to use their hands.
On a previous visit, we tried slicing it at the table because we were sharing two pizzas, and we were given a steak knife that wasn’t up to the task. We singed our fingers. We muttered hostile words under our breath.
One time, the pizza crust was lackluster and one-dimensional, as if the proofing of the dough had been rushed. The dough lacked that chewy, tender bite. The next time, it was chewy and flavorful and sported a nice, airy lift or rise. There was also random charring on the edges and along the bottom, a hallmark of traditional Neapolitan pies.
After eating there, we decided to compare Trick Pony with the competition, so we drove two minutes (not two hours) to Hot Italian, where the pies were clearly superior – better crust, better toppings, and a better overall organization.
Trick Pony needs to up its game right away if it is going to compete. There are only four or five pizzas on the menu, a couple of salads and no dessert.
Jarosz has hired a new pizza maker from Italy, Matteo Bonezzi, who was already living in Sacramento. According to Jarosz, Bonezzi’s dough is amazing, and the new formula will be unveiled soon. Bonezzi has ambition to offer dozens of different pizza combinations, but Jarosz says the new hire will operate within the limited options for now.
If the pizzas become noticeably better than the decent pies we’ve had already, Trick Pony could become a serious player on the local pizza scene. We’ll be back to taste Bonezzi’s pizzas in the coming weeks and update this review.
1801 L St. #150
Overall * * 1/2
With the folks from Broderick Roadhouse now calling the shots, the menu and pricing structure has been simplified, and it mostly makes sense. Everything is $10, or that’s the cute idea. But some things, such as the delicious duck burger, are $12. Add fries to the order for $5 and you’re looking at one of the priciest burgers in Sacramento. The menu is supposed to expand and diversify in the weeks ahead. For now, you’d better be into gourmet burgers. Cocktails are solid. Wine and beer choices are OK but behind the competition.
2013 S St.
Overall * *
This is still a work in progress, but we haven’t seen much progress. The pizzas are still inconsistent, ranging from so-so on one visit to promising and reasonably tasty on the next. These Neapolitan-style pizzas are thin crust and baked in a wood-fired oven. But with all the pizza competition in town, Trick Pony will have to up its game if it hopes to survive. For now, the menu is limited to four or five pizzas, a couple of salads and no dessert. That’s not enough to hold our interest on return visits. We’re told that upgrades to the dough and to the menu are coming any day. Time is of the essence.