I have a theory about the development of the Sacramento dining scene. We’ve had solid high-end, special-occasion restaurants — think Biba at first, and later places like Ella or Grange — for a long time. And we’ve had an exceptional and diverse cheap-eats scene for much longer. What was missing for many years was high quality in the midrange, especially in neighborhood restaurants. The maturation of the restaurant scene here shows in the continuing growth of that sector.
Tiny new Cacio, located in the sleepy Pocket and with a size that matches its neighborhood’s name, is a pleasing midrange development. Jonathan Kerksieck and his wife, Katie Kinner-Kerksieck, both have strong backgrounds in the buzzier downtown dining scene, having met at Grange and, between them, worked at what seems like half the high-end places in town. But they chose an out-of-the-way location to venture out on their own, in a spot formerly occupied by the beloved, but more high-end Ravenous Café.
The Kerksiecks have shifted the homey little location in a big shopping center on Greenhaven to a slightly more casual, yet still refined vibe. Prices are relatively modest for the quality offered, there’s a good wine list and the service is warm and easygoing.
The menu is decidedly Italian, with a comfort-food spin — which is fitting, since the restaurant’s name means “cheese.” The signature dish, in fact, is also its namesake: cacio e pepe, a simple Roman pasta that melds pecorino, thick bucatini (hollow spaghetti), olive oil and lots of black pepper in a satisfying tangle.
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Pastas are a strength here, with two dishes made from that precisely al dente bucatini. The other is a classic spaghetti and meatballs. The meatballs are beefy yet surprisingly light and tender, the tomato sauce brightly acidic yet deeply, richly savory. I wasn’t sure it needed the splash of richness that came from a blob of creamy burrata cheese on top, but it did taste good.
A vegetarian pasta dish, the mushroom Bolognese, is served over rigatoni and also featured the burrata topping. Again, this seemed a bit like gilding the lily. More cheese is always pleasant, but unnecessary when an aromatic, dark mushroom sauce coaxes so much earthy flavor from cremini and porcini mushrooms. This is a dish that’s perfect for the season, ready to warm up a chilly rainy or foggy night. (Note, however, that Cacio, as a family place, is closed for the week between Christmas and the New Year.)
The meatballs also come as a side dish to share — the menu, Italian-style, lists sides as contorni. The sides are hearty enough that it would be easy to build a meal from them. For instance, an ultra-rich, three-cheese mac and cheese featured orecchiette and a silky, copious sauce. We tried it “adult style,” with lardons of salty, chewy pancetta and cloves of sweet, soft roasted garlic added. The additional flavors were a hit, cutting through what might otherwise be an overwhelming hit of cheese.
For something that might seem lighter but really isn’t, head to the Brussels sprouts. Roasted to tenderness, they’re paired with more of that toothsome pancetta and a glaze of saba (a sweet-tart syrup of cooked grape must that’s similar to balsamic vinegar) and might just convert a sprouts hater.
Truly lighter options come on the salad menu. I loved the mixed greens with paper-thin shavings of persimmons and a shower of goat cheese. My dining companion found the greens themselves — a mélange of unusual and bitter leaves from Del Rio Botanical, served in clumps on their stems — a little offputting.
Less challenging was a lunch salad of shaved Brussels sprouts and radicchio with crunchy toasted almonds, musky pecorino, a scattering of hard-boiled egg and a tangy, light citronette dressing. It was airy and ethereal enough that it somehow made Brussels sprouts seem fluffy — the polar opposite of their porky richness in that side. Shaved Brussels sprouts also appear in a Caesar salad on the dinner menu.
Soups change daily. On one of my visits, a creamy, surprisingly light cauliflower soup with the haunting note of truffles was memorable and delicious.
Cacio has a large bar area, so single diner or small parties can drop in for wine or a snack. The contorni include a cheese board (also on the dessert menu) that’s just right for the purpose, with various cheeses, fruit and toasted nuts.
Toasted nuts also show up on a main dish of salmon, and they are a small tell of the kitchen’s skill. Walnuts can veer from bland to burnt in seconds, with only the narrowest band between. The walnut-parsley pesto that topped a seared salmon dish was perfect: flavorful, rounded, full of the crunch of just-right and precisely chopped walnuts. The salmon itself was equally good, seared to an exterior crunch and silky-fleshed within, on top of chewy pearls of farro with lemony, snappy braised greens. Seared salmon is a menu staple, but Cacio offers one of the best versions I’ve had in ages.
It also went excellently with the glass of Skinner grenache I ordered, after asking Kinner-Kirksieck (who is the main server and the face of the front of house) about a lighter red to pair. She gave me a prompt, complete description of the wine, which was very good. The wine list, like the menu, is compact and pleasing, with a couple of types on tap and mainly Italian and California options on offer; there’s also a likeable assortment of beers and a cider.
Like the salmon, another main dish, the pan-roasted flatiron steak, does a strong spin on a familiar protein. Here, it’s tender and beautifully complemented by umami-rich sautéed mushrooms, simple fingerling potatoes and the fresh note of arugula.
Desserts are few, as the tiny kitchen has clearly decided to focus on its savory strengths. There’s gelato and sorbet (neither made in house) in changing flavors. Smooth salted caramel and zingy Meyer lemon were both good. A fun and surprising plate of grilled bread with a satiny chocolate ganache, olive oil and salt, however, made a savory-sweet ending that felt of a piece with the Cacio experience. It was convivial, likeable, and confident in its own self-conception.
There’s a lot to be said for a restaurant that has narrowed its focus to offer exactly what it’s good at, at exactly the size it wants to be. Cacio, with its tightly edited menu of classics, won’t be shaking up the culinary scene, but it’s a great place to go for a lovely meal and a pleasant glass of wine.
Cacio is the kind of restaurant where everyone seems to be in a good mood, including people who work there. Its existence means we have one more place in town — and in an outlying neighborhood, no less — that’s casting a charmed light over diners and serving up reliable, reasonably priced Italian dishes. That’s all to the good, both as an indicator of the health of Sacramento’s restaurant scene and for neighborhood diners who’d like a delicious bowl of pasta on a Wednesday.
7600 Greenhaven Drive #23,
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. (Note: the restaurant will be closed between Christmas and New Year’s.)
Beverage options: Well-chosen, if brief, beer and wine list, plus specialty sodas.
Vegetarian friendly: The menu is short, but two pasta choices and several salad and appetizer options are available for vegetarians.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise levels: Relatively quiet, thanks to a small dining room.
Ambiance: Cozy and welcoming, this pocket-sized restaurant does a lot with a very small space, offering generous bar seating, comfortable booths and small but gracious touches like attractive art and sprigs of rosemary on the tables.
Sweet and unassuming, tiny Cacio feels like the restaurant equivalent of sinking into a sofa at a friend’s house: a welcoming, reassuring respite from a harsh world. The short Italian menu, which leans toward comfort food and pastas, is executed with assurance.
Chef-owner Jonathan Kerksieck’s background at such area restaurants as Grange and the late Masque shows in the high level of cooking here. Such dishes as earthy mushroom Bolognese, tender meatballs and bright pan-seared salmon with farro are harmonious and well-composed. The compact menu feels well-edited rather than limiting.
The busy but tiny front-of-house is handled warmly and expertly by co-owner Katie Kinner-Kerksieck, who seems genuinely glad to welcome guests. The small staff means service can have some small lags at busy times, but it’s easy to forgive.
Pastas ($13-15) are well-priced and hearty, and the few meat and fish mains are $24 to 27. The “contorni” (sides to share) are a solid deal; don’t miss the big $6 bowl of roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta.