Carla Meyer

Dining review: L Street’s Eatuscany solid but not quite a discovery

The cafe’s gelatos are outstanding. They’re made by co-proprietor Stefania Zerbinati.
The cafe’s gelatos are outstanding. They’re made by co-proprietor Stefania Zerbinati. cmeyer@sacbee.com

Eatuscany Caffe, a tiny midtown Sacramento spot that serves gelato, panini sandwiches and pasta, offers solid, inexpensive lunch options without quite reaching “gem” status.

To be clear, this 6-month-old, counter-service cafe is a modest place with modest aims. All further expectations attached to it were imposed by me, in the hopes of claiming it as a special discovery.

As a word-of-mouth recommendation (from a neighbor whose opinion I trust) with an unlikely backstory, it held the initial hallmarks of such discoveries. The backstory: Married owners Stefania Zerbinati, 45, and Franco Zerbinati, 50, moved with their two children from Tuscany, Italy – inspiration for many Americans’ vacation funds, an Estée Lauder perfume and a romantic cinematic travelogue starring Diane Lane – to Cameron Park, inspiration for some Northern Californians’ retirement dreams but no Hollywood films or designer fragrances. At least to date.

My first visit to Eatuscany, when the food was so good it made the overall experience pleasant despite a less-than-ideal atmosphere, also supported the untapped-gold-mine hunch.

That afternoon a few weeks ago was unseasonably warm outside, and felt warmer still inside the cafe, a bright space with white tables and white-tiled walls. The cafe door had been propped open, allowing staff members to move back and forth to and from the front patio – and sunlight and heat to enter the space unabated.

Eatuscany sits in the same 1801 L St. shopping center as Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates and Buckhorn Grill, facing busy L Street. I do not like to dine outside next to this stretch of L on the loveliest of days. But on this day, workers using heavy machinery were tearing up the street in front of the cafe.

Inside, where tables take up most of the dining space and people lined up for gelato and espresso drinks much of the rest of it, we had to make the tough choice between a sun-beaten table near the front or a seat near the bathroom in the back. We chose the latter, which was fine, because every part of Eatuscany we saw was spotless.

As work crews dug up L Street’s asphalt, Eatuscany upended surface notions of ice-cream places that sideline in sandwiches. First off, Stefania Zerbinati makes gelato in-house – and brings bona-fides to the process as an Italian gelato-school graduate.

Eatuscany’s sandwiches go beyond the usual liverwurst slapped on store-bought rye by a teenaged employee. The cafe’s chef, Italian native Matteo Bonezzi, once made pizza for midtown’s short-lived Trick Pony restaurant (now Localis). For Eatuscany, he makes pastas, crepes and sandwiches, baking the focaccia in-house.

On that first visit, we admired the play of the lively tomato sauce on the perfectly al-dente penne in the daily-special boscaiola pasta. We then sampled the $16 meat and cheese board, which held an unusually hefty helping of creamy burrata, along with generous portions of imported salami, mortadella and prosciutto.

The speck crepe also impressed, its Bechamel sauce sharpened by Parmigiano-Reggiano and the speck’s salt and smoke. Slightly lighter, and more appropriate for a warm day, was the caprese sandwich, which held exceptionally fresh-tasting fior di latte, basil, and tomato slices (it’s always 5 o’clock and tomato season, somewhere). This substantial sandwich is a bargain at $8.

Most people at Eatuscany that day came for the gelato. Here’s what I know about gelato: It should be pistachio, and free of grit. Stefania Zerbinati’s pistachio treat, which I sampled on that initial visit, was smooth and creamy, as was her equally good Nutella gelato. The strawberry gelato, dotted with fruit, was less smooth but still met my standard for all desserts – that they taste more like their lead ingredient than sugar. For this reason, I find the gelato here superior to its sweeter competition at Devine Gelateria, which sits just down 19th Street.

A small-size gelato runs $4.50. But from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., you can get that gelato plus half a sandwich (it’s still sizable) and a beverage, for $9.95.

The gelatos never faltered on our subsequent visits, even as my untapped-gold-mine theory of Eatuscany did.

There had been holes from the start. For example, 1801 L St., one of the best-known restaurant-oriented addresses in the most traversed dining neighborhood in the Sacramento region, is not an obscure location. So even if I were to lead people to a previously unknown flavor factory/bargain hub, I would be leading them to a place a few feet or yards away from where they likely already have visited.

But the desire to share cultural discoveries, which inspired me to become a film critic several years ago, has grown more intense on the restaurant beat. Because food is more elemental and communal, whether one is sharing dishes at a table or recommendations for restaurants among friends and neighbors.

Pinpointing genuine finds for people feels like an imperative of my job and also can feel, for me and my fellow food lovers, like a personal crusade. And like a lot of crusaders, I can be overly enthusiastic. I started out judging Eatuscany on what it might be instead of what it is.

But that changed on my second visit, when I bit into the lasagne ragu, which had been reheated unevenly, rendering its flavors hard to judge. (Eatuscany’s kitchen lacks a hood, so it must prepare meat in a different kitchen. It does so at the midtown restaurant Adamo’s, owned by a friend of the Zerbinatis).

The Zerbinatis are trying to do a lot in a small space, with limited resources. So it’s inevitable some things will hit, and others, like the mushroom crepe and tortelloni verdi, miss. The crepe held plentiful but virtually flavoerless mushrooms. The tortelloni verdi’s overly thick, slightly hard pasta wrappers offered too much to chew on before one could reach the flavorful ricotta-and-herb filling.

On every visit after the first, the unremarkable (bruschetta) ran neck and neck with the noteworthy (an onion soup of the day that offset onion sweetness with a tomato snap) among savory items. Also, things still felt a touch uncomfortable inside the cafe – due less to temperature than a seating configuration that allows people who aren’t sitting little room to move.

But the gelato, and the Zerbinatis’ back story, remained compelling throughout.

The couple first visited El Dorado County, where they had relatives, on their honeymoon, and fell in love with the area. They bought their house in Cameron Park in 2009. Stefania Zerbinati said they moved there to give their two teenagers more opportunity than they would have in Italy, which was hit hard by the Great Recession.

Eatuscany did not turn out to be as extraordinary as I envisioned. But a small Sacramento cafe owned by a Tuscan gelato specialist and her husband? That’s still exceptional. And Eatuscany need not be even that, when it merits a visit just for its gelato and $9.95 lunch deal.

Eatuscany Caffe

1801 L St., Suite 80, Sacramento. 916-930-1950, www.eatuscanycaffe.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Beverage options: A short list of Italian wines. Italian bottled beers. Espresso-based coffee drinks.

Vegetarian-friendly: Yes, or at least to vegetarians fond of dairy products.

Gluten-free options: There’s a gluten-free fusilli pasta on the menu.

Noise levels: Low to moderate, though street noise comes in when the door is open to the patio.

Overall  1/2

Things can get cramped inside the small dining area, but it’s a nice, bright space. The house-made gelato delivers, as do several savory dishes. But there were temperature and/or seasoning issues with other dishes.

Food  1/2

The daily soup we tried, its sweet onion base zinged by tomato acidity, impressed. Tomatoes also highlighted a wonderful boscaiola pasta of the day. Though the mushrooms in the mushroom crepe tasted underseasoned, the speck crepe offered welcome hits of salt and smoke along with Bechamel-sauce richness. The lasagne ragu was unevenly heated, making its flavors difficult to discern, and the tortelloni verdi gave us too much to chew on.

Service  1/2

Service is limited, but attentive. The counter people were friendly and stopped by our table a few times to remove empty plates.

Value

The substantial caprese sandwich on focaccai is a bargain at $8. The daily lunch combos also are good deals, especially the $9.95 special that includes half a sandwich, a beverage and a small gelato.

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