It's easy to like Ettore's European Bakery & Restaurant because the folks there keep it simple.
You walk in, you order, you sit down, you eat. Along the way, there may be a few bumps in the road, especially for the uninitiated. The food is largely straightforward and the setting relaxed, with a low-key, unpretentious vibe permeating the room.
The pastries, many of which European-trained pastry chef Ettore Ravazzolo introduced to Sacramento a generation ago, have always been first-rate.
And yet, all the attempts at simplicity can sometimes get in the way of actually enjoying a seamless dining experience.
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While Ettore's remains a simple pleasure, it could stand a few tweaks – some with the cooking, some with the logistics of ordering and eating – that could elevate the experience without overhauling the concept.
The fixes are as simple as pie, if only the restaurant management would walk through from the customers' point of view.
Our first visit for dinner underscored the first of several hiccups. There's no one to greet you or guide you. While regulars know to take a search-and-grab approach to getting their hands on a menu, we felt awkward waiting in line and wondering what we would order.
Wouldn't it be nice if the menus were available at the back of the line? Instead, we watched several folks amble up to the front, get one of the few menus and return to the back of the line. We eventually ordered, noting how simple it all sounded, and how affordable, with all entrees under $20.
The salmon with teriyaki glaze featured a thick piece of fish, perfectly cooked and nicely seasoned, with basic broccoli and mashed potatoes. Nice and simple for a weeknight dinner.
The pizza was the opposite – it had too many components scattered about – pepperoni, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and olives so robust and salty they dominated the palate. Still, the pizzas here can be surprisingly good, with a touch of char on the edges of the thin, flavorful crusts.
The pappardelle was delicious. That may have something to do with the new chef, Pedro Depina, who worked as sous chef at Ella Dining Room & Bar, where the pappardelle is revered. This dish is a little busier and less-refined than the Ella version. But along with the wide ribbons of pasta, the spicy andouille sausage, thick ragu and generous shavings of Parmesan, it was a hearty, balanced success.
We were two for two with the entrees, but we were perplexed by the service – or lack of it. Folks on a budget, which I suppose includes tightwads, will love it here because it's a no-tip restaurant.
You order at the counter, where they hand you a number and ask if you want complimentary bread, which comes in a basket wrapped in a paper napkin. That's wrong on so many levels, the primary one being that paper can stick to the bread if the bread is warm. We wasted one slice trying to peal off the moist paper.
No one told us we had to fetch our own silverware. It was beginning to feel more like a cafeteria than it needed to.
An employee soon came to our table with the bottle of wine we ordered from the limited selection. He opened it, set it down and disappeared. I imagine wine service in a maximum- security prison is this refined.
Thing is, we finished our meal and managed to enjoy the wine, but the dinner came off us unnecessarily awkward. No one ever stopped by to ask how things were going. We could have used a refill on our glasses of water, but no one asked. We would have liked dessert, but no one asked.
Do we abandon our table, get back in line and order from the pastry counter? If we have to wonder, the system isn't quite working.
By our second visit, we were pros. We walked in and immediately bounded past others in line to get those precious menus.
We ordered and sat down with soft drinks instead of wine. The food this time fell flat: a rushed and clumsy cassoulet with spicy sausage that tasted more like hospital food, and a hapless nightly special – polenta with chicken in a soupy, pale sauce that was exceptionally bland. Think CSPAN with the mute button activated.
I looked toward the open kitchen. It was apparently Depina's night off, and no one in the kitchen was tasting, seasoning or adjusting the dishes.
This time we wondered about refills for our drinks. Do we have to get back in the long line? Would the manager or food runners notice our empty glasses and sad expressions? No.
Would anyone ask if the food was OK? No. We left feeling depleted, the only consolation being that upon arriving at home I would open a little box and savor a piece of Kahlua cake.
The food on our third visit was more than OK. It was nice and simple, and an excellent value for cooking that is a notch or two above the standard home-cooked meal. The chicken with shiitake mushrooms in a creamy sauce with nicely seasoned mashed potatoes seemed to personify the down-home experience here. So did our steak with herbed butter, grilled corn, roasted potatoes and sautéed button mushrooms.
These are the kinds of dishes – straightforward but handled with precision – that distinguish Ettore's as a place for dinner.
But the real treat comes at the end – the desserts are up there with the city's best pastries. We loved the salty caramel-and-chocolate tart, a thick and intense treat Ravazzolo created a year ago. You also can't go wrong with the Kahlua cake, which has so much texture and complexity of flavor in each slice. You can point at anything in the large pastry case and come out a winner, including the incredible, multilayered Napoleon and a chocolate chip cookie that may be the best in town.
With simple tweaks to the service and a tad more consistency and care in the kitchen – especially the seasoning of certain dishes – Ettore's will remain an affordable and appealing place for a simple meal, without any unnecessary little bumps along the way.
Ettore's European Bakery & Restaurant
2376 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento
Hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Full Bar? Beer and wine.
Vegetarian friendly? Yes.
Overall two 1/2 stars (pretty good) The beautiful pastries are the star here, yet regulars know you can enjoy a pleasant, straightforward meal, too. With a few tweaks, the experience can be even better.
Food two and 1/2 stars (pretty good)
Oddly enough, Ettore's has one of the best hamburgers in Sacramento. We also liked the salmon with teriyaki glaze, the hearty chicken and a nicely cooked steak. The polenta dinner special, however, was so underseasoned it seemed like a practical joke. Recommended pastries include the salty caramel-and-chocolate tart, the Kahlua cake and the Napoleon. The wine list is very limited, but prices are decent. Beer is available on tap.
Service two stars (fair)
In order to keep prices down, Ettore's offers limited service. This needs rethinking. While full service isn't necessary, smarter service and more attention paid to the tables is in order for the dining experience to be more seamless. Sometimes it can feel like a cafeteria.
Ambience two stars (fair)
The restaurant is in a strip mall, and there's little attempt to give the room its own sense of style with decor or lighting. It's straightforward and a tad old-fashioned. Live music some nights on the patio is a nice touch.
Value three stars (good)
For those looking for simplicity and who don't place much importance on service, Ettore's is a good bet. Sandwiches and most pizzas are under $10. The flatiron steak with herb butter is $19.95, the half-chicken dinner $16.95. These are good prices for good quality and nice portions.