Italian food is about substance and earthy ingredients, pungent aromas and tightly woven family bonds, and those homespun themes are what many expect to find at a trattoria. So I was surprised when I ventured into Gianni’s Trattoria, a modern, almost coldly austere new restaurant on midtown’s J Street.
Gianni’s is much larger than the Black Pearl Oyster Bar, which once occupied this space. In expanding the restaurant, Gianni’s owners, Peter Torza and Brian Bothwell, took over the hair salon next door, doubling the square footage. I entered the beautifully stark trattoria with relief&emdash;the Black Pearl felt narrow and darkly claustrophobic, while Gianni’s feels just right.
You have the sense of walking under water: The pristine concrete floors are a soft lime green, and pebbled-white booths are eerily illuminated from above with turquoise lights. The bar offers a cushy white pad for your elbows (the better to grip that refreshing flute of Prosecco), and the white plastic bar chairs are straight out of an episode of The Jetsons. Old black-and-white movies (mostly Italian, largely Fellini) play continuously on wide-screen televisions behind the bar. It’s easy to forget that this odd, slickly appealing restaurant is attempting to build its reputation on solid Italian cuisine.
But the earthiness I expected was soon revealed in chef Patrick Hocking’s menu, filled with bold, traditional ingredients and flavors. It was hard to imagine feasting on broiled pheasant and osso buco in this spare, contemporary space, yet I saw diners tucking into rustic dishes that would be right at home on a hand-hewn wood table in Italy.
Appetizers included a small plate of meaty prawns, wrapped in pancetta and doused with garlic, fresh lemon juice and chili peppers; a comforting fagioli soup, whose thick tomato broth enveloped chewy fontina and tender beans; and a gorgeous antipasto plate, which changes daily. The kitchen chooses five cured meats for the plate; the day I visited, they were prosciutto, bresaola (air-dried beef), sopressata (dry-cured salami) and hot and sweet coppa (salted, aged pork salami). Also on this enormous plate were a juicy roasted portobello mushroom cap (sprinkled with truffle oil and goat cheese), white beans and olives, a selection of Italian cheeses and several condiments, including sweet fig confit and red-pepper pesto, all served with a stack of toasted bread slices. I’ll be back soon to enjoy this dish again.
Gianni’s salads piqued my interest. The seafood salad, made with shrimp, octopus and smoked trout, was enlivened with chili flakes and garlic. You could easily make a meal from the huge arugula salad, dotted with diced avocado, sweet cherry tomatoes and paper-thin slices of red onion. Pizzas are thin-crusted and endearingly chewy. The hearty Tuscan is topped with sausage, peppers and fresh mozzarella cheese. The kitchen also offers a simple no-cheese pizza adorned only with tomato sauce, anchovies, garlic and pured fresh basil.
Pastas range from rich ravioli stuffed with lobster and shrimp in a creamy Alfredo sauce to silky, buttery black spaghetti tossed with rock shrimp and spinach. I enjoyed the sharp, lilting flavors of the fusilli, redolent of rosemary and punctuated with black olives and artichoke chunks. For traditionalists, the kitchen offers lasagna and cannelloni stuffed with chicken and veal.
The entres I sampled were the least inspiring dishes at Gianni’s. The osso buco Milanese, though tender and plentiful, was virtually tasteless. And the veal scaloppine saltimbocca, prettily arranged on a long, narrow plate, was sheathed in a glossy sheet of melted fontina and liberally showered with sauted garlic and pine nuts. Tasty but rich, it might have been more enjoyable if a vegetable had been offered alongside the meat, giving a respite from the buttery, salty assault on my palate.
It’s hard to find a good tiramisu, so I ate Gianni’s rendition of the traditional Italian dessert with pleasure. The dish’s ladyfingers were thoroughly moist yet pertly held their shape, and the airy sweet rested on a pool of thick crÃ¨me anglaise embellished with chocolate and caramel sauce. I also devoured the chilled parfait, a pretty composition of fresh berries layered with zabaglione (a Marsala-scented custard) and topped with an intensely flavored blackberry sorbet.
The Black Pearl may be gone, but I’m pleased as prosciutto that this urban trattoria, with its robust, flavorful cuisine, has taken over this well-trafficked spot in midtown. Let’s hope it cranks out chewy, thin-crusted pizzas and lasagna for years to come.
Bring a cinephile: Half the fun is trying to determine which old Italian film is playing on the screens behind the bar
Squid alert: Chef Patrick Hocking’s refreshing version is marinated in buttermilk, enveloped in a tomatoey pool of sauce and liberally doused with grated Parmesan
Language lesson: The menu includes an amusing glossary of Italian food terms&emdash;but we want to know why iceberg lettuce appears (along with ziti, tortellini and bruschetta)
Gianni’s Trattoria: 2724 J St., Sacramento, (916) 447-1000; giannisnow.com
Hours: Lunch Tuesdayâ€“Friday 11:30 a.m.â€“2 p.m., dinner Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday 5:30â€“9 p.m., Thursdayâ€“Saturday 5:30â€“10 p.m., closed Monday