European Restaurant Design for Dummies


I felt like a stranger in a strange land when I finally ate at Hot Italian last week. The new pizza-’n’-panini place that opened mid-February at the corner of 16th and Q is a stylish addition to the Sacramento dining scene. But it is so “designed” that I had a little trouble figuring a few things out. To wit:

* What the heck are those two gray things on the sidewalk out front that look like tiny merry-go-rounds? Answer: bike racks. They work a little differently from a traditional bike rack: You stand your bike upright on its rear wheel, then lock it into place.

* How do I dry my hands? In the bathroom, I couldn’t find paper towels or a conventional hand dryer. I looked around and finally figured out that I was supposed to use the sleek gray contraption attached to the wall. It’s called a Dyson AirBlade. You stick your hands into a slot and a high-speed fan wicks away the water in seconds. They’ve been popular in Europe for a while but are only starting to pop up in the United States. (I saw one last weekend at the beautiful new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.)

* What really made me feel dumb, however, was the menu. It’s very striking, with white type on a black background, but it isn’t divided into clearly marked categories such as Pizza, Panini, Calzone and Insalata. Instead, each dish gets a name, a list of ingredients and one or more little icons telling you how you can order the dish. The Belucci, for instance, is made with tomato sauce, mozzarella, spicy sausage and ricotta cheese and is available as both a pizza (signified by a little circle with a little bull’s-eye inside) and a calzone (signified by a half circle). The panini icon is two little ovals, one on top of the other; the Insalata icon is a leaf.

It’s a clever idea, but I was so befuddled that it took me a few minutes to figure it all out. Luckily, it was lunchtime and I wasn’t drinking wine. Otherwise I think I would have had to confess my ignorance to my waiter.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. I found Hot Italian completely charming and quite different from anything else in Sacramento. With its communal seating and aggressive, black-and-white color scheme, it reminded me of a beautiful cafeteria for the hippest kids in school. I’m just not accustomed to having a learning curve when eating out.