IT’S A MYSTERY WHY Sacramento doesn’t have more Italian restaurants. There’s Biba, of course, and a handful of old-school, red-sauce-and-Chianti places. But where are the modern, upscale Italian restaurants so prevalent in nearby San Francisco and Napa? It’s a head-scratcher.
Deneb Williams and Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou set out to remedy that situation with Allora, their new modern Italian seafood restaurant in East Sacramento. He’s a longtime chef with a passion for Italian cuisine; she’s an advanced sommelier with a thing for Italy’s language, culture and wine.
They have impeccable pedigrees: Williams was the executive chef at The Firehouse in Old Sac for almost a decade. Mandalou worked at Ella as a bartender and assistant sommelier. Several years ago, they decided to strike out on their own and partnered with David Hardie, whose Enotria restaurant building on Del Paso Boulevard was empty. Williams and Mandalou (who are married to each other) ended up opening two eateries in the space: Uptown Pizza and a casual barbecue place called Woodlake Tavern. But their ultimate goal was a wine-focused Italian restaurant.
The couple found the perfect location in East Sac: a small brick building—formerly a florist shop—perched on a corner on Folsom Boulevard, with storefront windows, a vaulted ceiling and scads of natural light. Working with interior designer Emily McCuiston, they rid the place of all traces of the flower shop and installed a top-of-the-line kitchen (for him) and a glass-walled wine vault (for her). The airy new interior is a combination of glass, wood, brass and velvet—understated but luxurious. Behind the restaurant, there’s a private patio with a “living wall” of micro greens, herbs and edible flowers for use by the kitchen.
The menu is ordered in typical Italian fashion: antipasti, followed by pasta and ending with fish and meat entrées. Dishes are small and artfully composed. For an antipasto called Mussels Conserva, the bivalves are steamed, removed from their shells, sautéed in a tomato/chili brodo with nduja sausage and served with crisp batons of grilled bread. An appetizer called Pulpo is a twist on Michael White’s famous octopus dish at New York City’s Marea. Williams marinates the tentacles in red wine, cooks them sous vide, pan sears them—hard—with balsamic glaze and serves them with gnocchi and squid ink.
For Allora, Williams assembled a talented kitchen staff. There’s executive chef Joe Pruner, who worked at Empress Tavern, The Kitchen and OBO’, and Marco Cerruti, who was raised between Italy and Sacramento, worked at The Kitchen and staged in restaurants all over Europe (including Noma in Copenhagen).
The seasonal menu changes often. When the restaurant opened in February, dishes included buccatini with Dungeness crab and uni cream, and sea scallops with apple, fennel and celeriac. Warmer weather will bring sunnier choices like melon and prosciutto with tarragon chili dressing.
Williams describes the menu as a “platform” for the wines chosen by his wife. Mandalou focuses on Italian wines, along with Italian varietals from California and Europe. “Getting people to be adventurous and try new things excites me,” she says. The bar serves wine-based cocktails like the Retsina Sour, in which Greek retsina substitutes for gin in a spiked lemonade with a piney, juniper-ish flavor.
Snake River Farms skirt steak with spring onions and potato
Soon, Allora will begin offering a five-course tasting menu. Unlike most chef-driven tasting menus, Mandalou will choose the wines first, and the kitchen will create food to go with them.
Insalata de Mare: shrimp, calamari, crab, mussels and cauliflower
The wine list focuses on Italian wines, along with Italian varietals from California and Europe. “Getting people to be adventurous and try new things excites me,” says Mandalou, who curated the list. The restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license, but the bar serves wine-based cocktails. Greek retsina wine substitutes for gin in a spiked lemonade with a piney, juniper-ish flavor.
Deneb Williams and Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou
For Williams and Mandalou, Italian wine and seafood are the perfect marriage. Sacramento, they think, will embrace their modern interpretation of the two.
Agnolotti with smoked chicken brodo and egg yolk
5215 Folsom Blvd.