Carla Meyer

Dining: Sampino’s celebrates Italian traditions with inimitable Friday dinners

For several years, I have watched with some degree of fascination as Sampino’s Towne Foods opened, adapted, evolved and prospered.

The food is better than ever, the restaurant’s sense of purpose clearer. It’s always delicious. It’s fun. It’s real. And it’s brimming with the resolve of one very proud Italian family.

Sampino’s began approximately 11 years ago on F Street as a wholesale supplier of produce and prepared foods to restaurants. It was a place where chefs could drop in and buy provisions.

It grew to become a sandwich spot for the general public and, once word spread about how very good the grub was, it emerged as something of a foodie destination, complete with live jazz on the patio on Fridays.

It’s Italian through and through. There is Italian music piped in through the sound system, including plenty of Sinatra. There are Italian movies on the TV behind the register. Recently, in my all-time least-appetizing moment at Sampino’s, I looked up to see Robert DeNiro’s character in “Godfather II” plunge a knife into Don Ciccio and rip open his abdomen. I sat down, got that gore out of my mind and promptly devoured my meatloaf sandwich (on ciabatta).

For the past 18 months or so, Sampino’s has upped the ante still further.

Its Friday night dinners, which cost about $35 to $40 per person and are often sold out, seem to showcase everything that is great about Italian family-style eating. Nowhere else in the city will you experience anything quite like this.

The food is fresh, plentiful and well crafted, beginning with a large platter of house-made antipasti, including olives, pepperocini and giardiniera (assorted pickled vegetables). Again, this simply doesn’t happen on this scale anywhere else around. As we nibbled, we took stock of the setting, which is both intimate and casual, with everyone seated at one very long table in the middle of the brightly lit and cramped restaurant.

And everywhere you look is a Sampino — Bill, the patriach and master butcher with the encyclopedic knowledge and blue-collar work ethic; Michael, the bold and ambitious son and entrepreneur who is always innovating; Gabriela, Michael’s wife (who also presides over the new Mexican eatery next door), and the couple’s two children, Giovanni, 12, and Marianna, 13, who help serve dinner on Fridays.

Friday is the only day this quirky, quality-driven and very Italian eatery is open for dinner.

After noshing on the antipasti, which is both pleasingly salty and assertively tart with vinegar, I ordered a glass of prosecco and readied myself for what I knew was coming.

The Sampino’s timbale is practically a piece of performance art, and it’s a site to behold, baked to appear like a massive, moundlike cake framed by bready pastry that envelopes pasta, sauce and more. It weighs nearly 20 pounds and is sliced into 39 pieces.

Inside, along with the with penne and marinara, you’ll discover two types of Parmesan, meatballs, mozzarella, eggs, salami and mushrooms. It’s meaty and moist, bready and somewhat exotic. I’m told this complicated baked dish would take a typical chef two-plus hours to assemble — Michael Sampino does it in 16 minutes.

The younger Sampino, as many who visit the eatery know by now, is a tour de force of entrepreneurial energy and culinary passion. He doesn’t just cook food; he lives it. Everything is from the heart. He attended college in Italy, met his wife there, learned the language and soaked up all he could about the food and the Italian way of living.

His father, Bill, is his friend and role model. Michael lives with his wife and kids just two blocks from dad’s house in Land Park.

Bill Sampino is something of an under-the-radar legend in our local food scene. As a butcher, he worked 19 years for Corti Brothers and another 17 at the now-defunct David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods. He was instrumental in helping Biba Caggiano create her early cookbooks. He helped build the meat-and-fish counter at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. And now, semi-retired and working alongside his son, he does the butchering, makes the marinara, the meatballs, meatloaf and about 450 pounds of sausage each week in a cast-iron, hand-cranked sausage maker that dates back to the 1890s.

“That’s how we’ve been able to stay so consistent,” Michael Sampino once told me. “My dad and I are the only ones who execute the food from start to finish. It would be easier if we had others do it — and we would have more trips and holidays — but we put everything back into the business and we cook, cook, cook.”

Fridays are impossibly long days. Michael Sampino is there at 6:15 a.m. and locks the doors at 10:30 p.m. He does it because this is an an expression of what he’s all about: Italian, family, sharing.

These fixed-price dinners have the potential to nourish, soothe, delight and, yes, overwhelm. The food is so plentiful that you need to pace yourself. After the timbale comes a plate of risotto, creamy-smooth and nicely seasoned. For the main course, we had a choice of seafood, poultry and beef.

The “steak pizzaiola” is a flat iron steak that is pan seared and finished in a 350-degree oven for eight minutes until it is medium-rare. Our steak was tender and expressive in flavor, topped with ragù and served over whole-wheat pasta. Also on the plate is an appetizing leek and pancetta au gratin.

The striped sea bass is served with sautéed lobster mushrooms and a mildly bitter watercress pesto that adds balance and acidity to the richness of the fish. If anything, it didn’t quite stand up to the excellent steak and the even better Muscovy duck.

Indeed, the duck was my favorite dish of all, rich, tender and loaded with flavor. Sampino’s cooks it perfectly as a roulade and serves it sliced with a delicious grapefruit-and-peppercorn sauce. This is a dish I will remember best when I think of this dinner.

In Italian tradition, the main course is followed by a salad (insalata) with heirloom tomatoes and Parmesan crisps. Then comes dessert, a classic zabaglione (Italian custard) with fresh berries. My companions and I were divided on this one. They found it overly sweet. I’m a fan, I suppose, of sweet. Whether it’s too sweet is a matter of taste.

Sampino’s may be an Italian eatery, but it is impossible to compare it against well-known Italian restaurants here. It doesn’t pretend to have the finesse, repertoire or overall mastery of Biba, and it lacks the broad offerings of an upscale-casual place like Lucca.

Sampino’s is simply a one-of-a-kind Italian family. It’s hearty. It’s loaded with charm. It’s memorable.

Throughout dinner, there was plenty of conversation, laughter and good times. We talked about the food. We talked about Italy. We reminisced about Sacramento restaurants. And more than anything, we agreed that these Friday dinners are an experience that helps define our new and exciting culinary landscape.