Food & Drink

So much to celebrate: a 10-year anniversary and a tasty new gig for Aimal Formoli

Chef Aimal Formoli, center, talks with a customer in 2016 at Formoli’s Bistro in East Sacramento.
Chef Aimal Formoli, center, talks with a customer in 2016 at Formoli’s Bistro in East Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file photo

Aimal Formoli and Suzanne Ricci were a young married couple in 2007, joined not only in love but a shared dream of running a successful neighborhood restaurant.

The risks were high, with no outside investors to help fund their bistro or previous ownership experience in the cutthroat world of restaurants. But they finally had keys for a space, hoping for customers once they opened the doors.

Now, they’re are on the verge of celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Formoli’s Bistro, an East Sacramento institution of quality neighborhood dining with mom-and-pop charm. This milestone also comes with a business expansion for the couple. Along with overseeing their flagship restaurant, Formoli will serve as head chef for Solomon’s Delicatessen, the much-anticipated Jewish deli opening in a former Tower Records at 730 K St.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Formoli. “We’ve made mistakes and we had to prove ourselves to get here. This new business venture makes Formoli’s stronger as a team. At the 10-year mark, we’re established enough so we can do some fun things.”

That fun has included fact-finding missions to Jewish delis around California to get inspiration for Solomon’s Delicatessen, which is expected to open in the fall. John Bays, who serves as executive chef for Red Rabbit Kitchen and Bar and Solomon’s Delicatessen, also joined the road trips to sample the best in pastrami, latkes and more.

But their creations must ultimately pass the taste tests of Sheila Wolfe, Lydia Inghram and Jami Goldstene – co-chairs of the Jewish Food Faire and investors in Solomon’s Delicatessen.

Formoli himself isn’t Jewish, but he’s found new inspirations among the world of matzo ball soup, brisket, stuffed kishkas and other Jewish deli staples.

“I don’t feel out of place at all,” said Formoli. “It’s fun and cool, and I’m really digging it. The more I learn about the culture, I think, ‘This is amazing.’ It’s like going back to school, almost.”

The Solomon’s team initially considered candidates from outside of Sacramento, including a chef from San Francisco’s Jewish community, to work in tandem with Bays. They knew the role of its head chef was crucial, with the high expectations of customers seeking an authentic Jewish deli experience. Formoli was ultimately selected for his culinary prowess, sense of the Sacramento community and eagerness to embark on a new aspect of his career.

“The first time I watched him prepare food, it was beautiful, like a work of art,” said Wolfe. “He was looking for a challenge, and we were looking for a traditional Jewish deli for modern times. He gets what this food and culture and history means. He has the feel of what the food needs.”

While Formoli and Bays craft the pastrami and other elements of the food program at Solomon’s Delicatessen, Ricci will take an even greater role at the bistro that bears the family name.

Formoli’s Bistro debuted near 32nd and J streets, but moved in 2011 to 3839 J St. The restaurant has since developed into a kind of community gathering spot for East Sacramento locals, where it’s not uncommon to see servers and other staff members hug regulars. Neighborhood news is often shared over a glass of wine or between bites of Formoli’s seasonal and Persian-inspired cuisine.

Ricci is already a core part of the restaurant’s business, serving as the front-of-house manager and wine buyer, along with helping plan menus and managing their catering business. A new chef de cuisine will be hired to lead the kitchen as Formoli continues to expand his duties with Solomon’s Delicatessen.

“I’m super excited about Aimal branching out with Solomon’s,” said Ricci. “We’re 10 years deep, and we’ve been through the roller-coaster ride and now mature enough to take on new projects. It’ll be a great transition for Aimal and great for our place.”

A 10-year anniversary dinner is meanwhile being planned for March, a time to reflect on the restaurant and toast to a new era. A decade after getting the keys to their business, the Formoli family sees new sets of doors opening.

“If you’re a cook, you’re a cook, and this is a whole different podium for me (to use),” Formoli said about Solomon’s Delicatessen. “It’s fun to do something more, but at the same time we know who we are.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias