Carla Meyer

Sacramento’s best minestrone soup? It’s served at this baseball bar turned Italian restaurant

Popular dishes at Sampino’s Kitchen at Joe Marty’s include tiramisu (left), lasagne, an eggplant Parmesan sandwich, cheese ravioli with pesto and minestrone soup.
Popular dishes at Sampino’s Kitchen at Joe Marty’s include tiramisu (left), lasagne, an eggplant Parmesan sandwich, cheese ravioli with pesto and minestrone soup. rbyer@sacbee.com

Joe Marty’s, the storied, baseball-themed bar and restaurant, served decent enough ballpark-inspired food when it reopened in late 2015, under new ownership and after a full rehab of the fire-damaged, long-vacant space in the historic Tower Theatre complex on Broadway. But I did not feel a need to go back after I reviewed it last year, since my review visits had sated my curiosity about what the place – which had been closed for nearly the whole time I lived in Sacramento – was like.

Review

But earlier this year, Michael Sampino, co-owner of the acclaimed Sampino’s Towne Foods deli and restaurant on F Street, took over the new Joe Marty’s from its previous proprietor, who, unlike him, was a restaurant-industry newcomer. Sampino said he had been looking to expand for a while, and had eyed other spaces around town, but none worked out until he approached Joe Marty’s about selling.

Now I needed to return, since I suspected the Sampino family, which is known for its artisanal sausages and pasta, would put the place in (indulge the pun) a whole different culinary league. These suspicions were founded: Sampino’s Kitchen at Joe Marty’s serves really good traditional Italian food. So good that one’s lasting impression of this latest Joe Marty’s is of rich minestrone soup and delicate eggplant instead of awkward décor. But your first, second and probably even third impressions will be of how the place looks.

Though they did not specifically seek out a baseball-themed establishment for their new location, Sampino and his wife and business partner, Gabriela, show obvious respect for the place’s history as domain of the late Marty, a one-time Sacramento Solon and Chicago Cub. Though there is less paraphernalia at play than in previous iterations, photos of professional baseball greats still line the walls of this new Joe Marty’s, as do flat-screen TVs showing Major League Baseball games, with the sound on. Announcer chatter about ERAs and RBIs is the main sonic accompaniment as one digs into one’s red sauce at a table covered in black cloth. Or dabs one’s mouth with a thin, white paper napkin.

Are we in a sports bar? A fancy restaurant? Or perhaps a dive like the old Joe Marty’s famously was? Sampino’s food quality and tablecloths say high-end, its prices say reasonable ($13 for eggplant Parmesan with soup or salad and bread) to borderline-high ($15 for a burger and fries – one of a handful of American-food offerings), and the TV tells us Kontos is warming up in the bullpen.

The TV aspect would jar less were its images of sun and outdoors being broadcast into a less dreary setting. The owners who rehabbed the former Joe Marty’s in 2015 went the not-uncommon design route of gray walls and concrete floors. Sampino’s black tablecloths transform this look from industrial to funereal.

This issue, thankfully, is entirely cosmetic and does not extend to the half of the room that composes the bar area, where the wooden table tops are bare and where, on a recent Friday evening, the happy-hour atmosphere was so convivial that it even spread some cheer to the dining section. So things already were looking up before my first spoonful of Sampino’s excellent minestrone soup pushed away all thoughts of décor.

The soup tastes intensely of tomato without the sweetness such concentration implies, its flavors carefully balanced through a multi-layered preparation that starts with a savory, house-made chicken stock. Michael Sampino uses his grandmother’s recipe for the minestrone, into which he puts Roma tomatoes before folding in marinara sauce to create an unusually thick consistency. Beans and vegetables are added at different points in the process so they retain some bite within the finished soup.

I happily anticipate trying this soup again in the fall or winter, when the contrast of outside chill to its heat no doubt with heighten its effect. As it stands, with having sampled it on two 100-plus-degree days, it already is the best minestrone I ever have tasted

Same goes for the eggplant Parmesan sandwich. Michael Sampino pulls off a bit of magic by combining about a zillion ingredients – garlic aioli, marinara, pepperoncini and three kinds of cheese among them – within a toasted ciabatta roll without obscuring the eggplant’s mildly earthy flavor. You can even taste the freshness of the bread crumbs that cover the eggplant.

Egg-yolk-emboldened pasta lends texture and heft to a wonderful meat lasagna that holds tender sausage crafted by Sampino’s father, Bill, a veteran butcher who worked for Corti Brothers and for David Berkley. We had hoped for a bit more cheese within the lasagna’s layers, but then found a creamy, tangy abundance of it in the three-cheese ravioli. Pasta wrappers of perfect, sturdy thickness hold fontina and two kinds of Parmesan.

Sampino’s is known for its meatballs, but we were unmoved by them at the Joe Marty’s location. Though they were plenty moist – the bread crumbs are soaked in milk – the meatballs’ flavor was eclipsed by accompanying ingredients in both the meatball sandwich and pasta and meatballs entrée.

I might have assessed them differently a few years ago, when central Sacramento had fewer spots selling traditional Italian dishes. But newcomers OBO’ and Amaro have helped fill the meatball gap admirably in the interim.

Sampino’s Kitchen joins the growing list of new restaurants stoking what I want to call a renaissance of Sacramento’s Italian restaurant scene. But I have not lived here long enough to recall a previous heyday – maybe when Biba Ristorante Italiano, Andiamo and Americo’s all were around in the 1990s?

Or perhaps this is the heyday, when you consider Biba turned 30 last year without missing a culinary step, and extend the reach to gourmet pizza places such as Hot Italian and Masullo.

It takes all sorts of contributors to reach critical mass, and an awkwardly decorated sports bar/Italian restaurant hybrid with a knockout minestrone is doing its part.

Sampino’s Kitchen at Joe Marty’s

1500 Broadway, Sacramento. 916-382-9022, gojoemartys.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday. 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Closed Tuesday.

Beverage options: Full bar with craft cocktails. Compact wine list. Eight beers on tap, including local offerings. Bottled beer.

Vegetarian friendly: There are options, but the minestrone is made with chicken stock.

Gluten-free options: A few.

Noise levels: Moderate on our two lunch visits, but a bit rowdier during Friday happy hour.

Ambiance: It’s part sports bar and part Italian restaurant, but not enough of either yet. The dining room, with its concrete floors, gray walls and black tablecloths, looks grim. The bar area is livelier.

Overall

The food is good enough to overcome the awkward atmosphere, and our young servers were solicitous and friendly.

Food

Sampino’s Kitchen at Joe Marty’s serves the best minestrone soup I have ever tasted. The eggplant Parmesan sandwich piles on the ingredients without obscuring the eggplant’s taste. The lasagna and ravioli are worth ordering just for their scratch-made pasta. We were not wowed by the meatballs, and the pistachio cannoli tasted as if it had been sitting in a refrigerator too long.

Service 1/2

It took too far long for someone to take our order on one visit, but apart from that, the service – some of it by co-owner Michael Sampino, who works the bar, the kitchen, and the dining – was friendly and solicitous.

Value 1/2

Entrees (they include soup and salad – always order the soup) and sandwiches run $15 or less, and the ingredient quality is high and portions ample. But nothing stands out as a steal.

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