Carla Meyer

New Sacramento Italian bistro Amaro marks culinary step forward for Shady Lady owners

Pepperoni pizza at Amaro Bistro & Bar, the new Italian restaurant in Sacramento’s R Street Corridor.
Pepperoni pizza at Amaro Bistro & Bar, the new Italian restaurant in Sacramento’s R Street Corridor. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Amaro Bistro & Bar, the latest venture from the team behind Shady Lady Saloon, opened three months ago in the revamped, early 20th-century B&G Rochdale Building at 11th and R streets, in Sacramento’s hottest dining and drinking neighborhood, R Street Corridor.

The figurative space Amaro occupies, as a restaurant serving spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, linguine carbonara and pepperoni pizza every day, is just as important. Amaro is that piece that was missing from Sacramento’s Italian restaurant scene, in which one can count on places such as Hot Italian or Masullo for gourmet pizza but must seek pasta elsewhere.

Until Amaro opened three months ago in a building, next to the Warehouse Artist Lofts, that once held grocery and building-supply businesses, there was not a high-end casual place, at the Hot Italian-Masullo level, for pasta. OBO’ and Paesano’s skew too casual, Español too happily old-school and Biba too fancy. Amaro, which features well-executed upscale Italian comfort food at upscale comfort-food prices ($14-$18 for a la carte pasta dishes) and highly professional service in an interesting setting, fills that slot.

Amaro rewards at the table level, with its food and with a full view of an open kitchen where pizzamakers constantly feed pies into a large Wood Stone fire-deck gas oven while their colleagues roll out and otherwise work over pasta dough. Amaro also rewards when one looks up, to a tableau that heeds the tradition of striking Italian ceiling art.

Though not Sistine Chapel-level, the ceiling and upper walls of Amaro’s dining room are nevertheless gorgeous, with chandeliers hanging from a decorative tin-tiled ceiling. Shelves of books line the walls along with portraits of Italian clergy and aristocrats from the Middle Ages. Art gallery-style lighting showcases the red color scheme running from book jackets to noble cloaks.

Amaro owners Garrett Van Vleck, Jason Boggs and Alex Origoni – the team behind the Prohibition-themed Shady Lady just down R Street, 1970s-kitsch bar B-Side on S Street and West Sacramento’s nautically themed Sail Inn – know how to give patrons an eyeful.

But Amaro’s design, by Van Vleck, is the most segmented. When you enter the space from 11th Street and sit at the bar, which looks into the kitchen, everything appears to be one level, and you cannot see the dining room ceiling that climbs into a second floor of the three-story building. Amaro looks like a pleasant corner restaurant with lots of windows and a nice patio, but not like an especially Italian one, not with its tablecloth-less utilitarian seating and top-40 American rock songs on the sound system.

Not that we are demanding red-checkered tablecloths and Frank Sinatra and Louis Prima as background music. But we would not mind those things. Amaro lacks the coherent sense of identity of the Shady team’s other places, and specifically that of the Sail Inn, where, when I visited last year, a Jimmy Buffett-heavy soundtrack contributed to place’s charm.

But perfect Italian ambiance was not built in a day, and Amaro’s owners encountered so many construction delays – due to the building’s historic status and structural concerns that had to remedied – that being open for business is a victory.

The biggest victory, though, is food quality that surpasses that of the offerings at Shady Lady and Sail Inn. Amaro, the first of the owners’ projects to be decidedly more food- than drink-forward, gives their longtime executive chef, Kevin Ritchie, a chance to stretch. He makes the most of it, delivering tradition with intriguing tweaks.

The $14 spaghetti-and-meatballs plate comes with moist meatballs made from pork, beef and lamb, with that final ingredient bringing a slightly earthy flavor that becomes pleasingly tangy under under sweet-bright marinara sauce. In his snappy-creamy Caesar salad, Ritchie uses Little Gem lettuce instead of romaine and white anchovies instead of brown, but otherwise hits the Worcestershire and raw-egg marks one craves from a Caesar.

The pepperoni pizza comes on a 14-inch crust with an airy yet substantial edge that offers chew yet does not require yanking, and three kinds of pepperoni. Like my beloved Josh pizza at Selland’s, this pie goes right to the shaft of the salt mine without falling in.

Not so cautious is Amaro’s Carne pizza, a heated-cured-meats extravaganza of pepperoni, pancetta, prosciutto, sausage and the over-the-top-of-the-top element of Calabrian chili pesto. My companion called this pie “a punch in the face of a meat pizza.” Though I cannot say I hated it, it was so salty that I can recommend it only for people who travel on the international competitive-pizza-eating circuit.

If one were just going by heft and width, this meat-laden pie would be a bargain at its $18 price; some places charge that for 12-inch pies. Amaro’s $15-$18 pies, like its $10-and-under appetizers, are reasonably priced.

Even the pasta prices can seem worth it, given the obviously high quality of ingredients and craft involved. Especially the filling $18 lasagna, with thin layers of pasta, fontina and Orland Farmstead Creamery Ricottage – a ricotta/cottage cheese hybrid – cheeses and béchamel and Bolognese sauces. The lasagna’s selling point is a top layer crisped by the regular and then the pizza oven. Ritchie said he wanted every piece to offer the crunch one usually one gets from the edge of the lasagna pan.

This approach reminds one of Italian chef Massimo Bottura’s famous “The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna” at his restaurant Osteria Francescana in Italy. But whereas I have only seen that lasagna on television, I tasted the heat-intensified flavor of Amaro’s noodles in Sacramento. Though I initially wished for sharper flavor in the lasagna’s interior, richness and creaminess eventually won out and satisfied in a more elemental way.

Amaro shifted to a new spring menu just after our visits and dropped some of the dishes we tried. But expertly cooked scallops made with brown butter and seafood ravioli with nicely balanced fillings of shrimp, crab, mascarpone and Parmesan in perfectly al dente wrappers merit praise along with waves goodbye.

The $10 carpaccio starter was the least successful dish we tried. The meat’s flavor was swallowed by an overabundance of bland olive oil, and mustard seeds that we had hoped would add some pungency – and life – to the dish instead were disappointingly sweet.

We tried a few cocktails that incorporate different iterations of the Italian liqueur from which the place takes its name and found the Red Devil and Short Story tasty and deft at calibrating the amaro bitterness. But when you go to an Italian place, you want red wine, and we found Amaro’s selection of four red wines by the glass – all on draft – lacking. The $7 Coppola Rosso from Sonoma and $8 Gazzera Nero D’Avola from Italy were fine for their price level, but we did not taste a truly nice glass until we bought a $35 bottle of the highly versatile Fantini Farnese Montepulciano D’Abruzzo from Italy.

Service at Amaro was top-notch, from the highly professional bartender who served us at lunch to our servers during our two dinners, one of whom recalled, midmeal, a few special requests I had made at the evening’s beginning that I had not even recalled. Later that evening, he seemed spread a bit thin while covering a lot of tables. The place appeared to be understaffed, yet our server never lost his composure.

All were so on the ball, in attending to details like utensils and plates that needed to be replaced between courses, that service at times approached fine-dining levels. Maybe it’s better for Amaro not to have tablecloths. It would be hard to decide between red-checkered and white.

Amaro Bistro & Bar

1100 R St., Sacramento. 916-399-4145, www.amarobistrobar.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

Beverage options: Full bar, with amaro-based cocktails. Four red and two white wines on tap. Compact list of Italian and California bottled wines. Local and Italian beers on tap.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes. It offers gluten-free pizza dough and pasta.

Noise levels: The crowd noise was manageable, but we were distracted by the American pop music on the sound system.

Ambiance: The ceiling and upper walls of the dining room are gorgeous, and for diners who want to see a kitchen staff at work, Amaro offers a nice view.

Overall:

Amaro nicely fills a niche, as a high-end casual spot in the central city that serves pasta as well as pizza. Impressive food, distinctive design and terrific service complete the highly promising picture.

Food

The spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, pepperoni pizza and Caesar salad all are winners, as are some dishes we tried but that subsequently left the menu after a seasonal shift. But the carpaccio starter offers too little flavor, and the “Carne” pizza too much salt.

Service

Very close to perfect, although on one night our highly polished server seemed to be pulled in too many directions; the place looked understaffed. He seemed unflappable throughout, however.

Value  1/2

The ingredients are high quality and the craft apparent, but $14-$18 plates of pasta never will be a steal.

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