#146: Strings Italian Cafe

Last Friday evening for dinner I went to Strings Italian Cafe with my mom.  I haven’t been to a Strings in well over 16 years and I didn’t remember much about it.  It’s a smallish chain, primarily in northern California with just over 20 locations.  Here in Roseville (As well as Sacramento) we have two.  One on Douglas, in the little shopping center with Sunrise Natural Foods, and the other on Fairway across from Home Depot.  For this visit we went to the one on Douglas.  Much like my last post on Wong’s Garden, my impression, solely based on the outside, was that it would be a dark, cramped little place.  Similarly to Wong’s, it’s set back from the road and not something you might notice unless you were actively looking to see what was in the shopping center.

We headed in at just after 6PM.  As soon as you walk through the darkly tinted doors you are in a small waiting area which sits in front of the bar, which is tiny and has all of five seats.  Behind it on the wall looked to be most of their red wine selection.  To the left of the entryway is a few small tables with booth seating on one side and chairs on the other.  To the right is the same setup but more tables expand off to the back of the building, and this is the bulk of the dining area.  We were greeted right away by a couple of employees that were behind the bar.  One came around and seated us at a table by the front window.  The windows are dark but you can easily see through them, though they didn’t add a ton of light to the restaurant, keeping the ambiance consistent form the front to the back.

Our server, Kyle, introduced himself and took our drink orders right away.  We needed a moment to look over the menu (both for drinks and food) so we just had waters at first, which he brought out immediately.  I figured I’d have a glass of wine tonight.  It’s not something I typically order, but I was feeling squirrely.  I didn’t look over the wine list too much, so when our server came back to take the order I just waited for my mom to order and then got the same.  This ended up being Fetzer Vineyards Pinot Grigio.

As for dinner, I think I’ve mentioned before the Italian doesn’t get me too excited for the most part.  Whenever I look over a list of pasta dishes they all seem to blend together and look like the same thing.  One thing caught my eye right away.  It was on the specials board by the front door, Calamari & Shrimp.  I skimmed over this very quickly as we first walked past it and then got back up later to look at it more closely before we ordered (A calamari steak lightly breaded, sauteed with garlic, white wine, capers and lemon, topped with shrimp and served with a side of pasta and fresh vegetables)[Lunch: $13, Dinner: $16]  I’ve never heard of a calamari steak before, so I didn’t really know what to expect.  We placed our orders and both chose a salad over the minestrone soup.

Soon we had warm bread before us.  There were four pieces total, each lightly topped with some butter/oil and herbs.  These were pretty decent.  Nothing too noteworthy though.  Arriving simultaneously with the bread were our salads.  It was a mix of lettuce, red onions, tomatoes, croutons, sesame(?) seeds and raisins with a light Italian dressing.  This was pretty good and the Italian dressing seemed richer than any Italian I’ve had before.  It was very light and not really visible, but it tasted great.  The lettuce and onions were crisp and everything was pretty fresh.  I’m so out of the loop on wine in general since it’s not something I drink that often that I’m not going to delve into it too much but it was light, sweet and not at all dry.  I got a good amount of it since the bottle was about empty and he just finished it off.

Ten minutes after our bread and salads had arrived is about when the entrees came out.  The calamari steak did in fact kind of look like a steak.  I had never considered the preparation of squid to be anything except small slices so this was really interesting to me.  The light breading had a nice crispness to it without being a heavier deep fried batter that I’m used to with calamari.  Slicing into I was shocked at how tender it was.  It’s slipping my mind what kind of knife I had, but I’m certain a butter knife would have done the job just fine.  There was not even a hint of rubbery or chewy texture, it was cooked perfectly.  Overall it was incredibly flavorful.  Each ingredient was detectable and delicious while leaving the calamari to do it’s own thing and not overpowering it.  I did a little light squeezing of the lemon slice over top the whole steak to give it just a bit of a boost.  The pasta was pretty basic with a simple red sauce.  Not very exciting.  I thought the big chunks of broccoli could have been cooked just slightly longer.  I didn’t want them to be mush but they definitely could have been a little softer.

My mom’s Tortellini Alla Panna (meat tortellini with cream, garlic, mushrooms, Italian cheeses, smoked ham and Marsala wine)[$12] was pretty tasty, I had one of the tortellinis.  She was a bit disappointed with the tiny bits of ham in it and that the mushrooms had been basically blended into the sauce.  I probably would have expected there to be slices of mushroom in it myself.  Overall she said it was very good though, perhaps a touch richer than needed.

Dessert was not in the cards that night as we were both full and had other plans to get to.  The dessert list looked pretty typical.  I was very impressed with Strings.  The little bar looked nice but somewhat out of place with the rest of the dining room, which felt more like something you’d find in a Carrows.  Aside from the decor, the food was very good, particularly my calamari steak, and our server was fantastic and super professional/formal for this little joint.  He would fit in very well at a much higher end place.

Website: http://www.stringscafe.com/

#132: Pasta Pomodoro

Today, Pasta Pomodoro was for lunch.  This is a small chain of less than 2 dozen restaurants in the Sacramento & Bay Areas.  It’s probably been years since I’ve been to one.  I think I was working at Round Table when this one opened across the street and it felt like I went there a lot for a while.  Ten years later, they don’t seem to have changed a bit.

I headed in a little before 12:30PM.  There was just one family seated and I was pretty much given free choice of where to sit.  They have round tables, that seat four, which circle the dining room along with big floor-to-ceiling windows.  Just beyond that is a nice patio which is great when it’s not 90°+ out.  Booths and a smaller section of square tables finish off the dining room, and there is a small bar near the entrance.  Although they had been open for nearly an hour already, it felt like they had just unlocked the doors.  The floor mat for the entrance was still rolled up and sitting on a bench in the waiting area.  As I was seated, my server took my drink order and handed me a menu.  I just had a water, which he returned with pretty quickly.  He showed me the seasonal menu as well as the lunch menu on the back of the main one, then told me he would get me some fresh bread and was off again.  At about this time another family arrived and was seated.

He tended to them for a while.  They got drinks and even seemed to order food fairly quickly.  I waited for a little while before he returned and took my order as well.  I went with the Bolognese (rigatoni tossed with rich beef, pork and porcini mushroom sauce, topped with shaved pecorino) lunch combo with a Caesar salad.  With that he was off again.  I wasn’t sure if he had forgotten about my bread or not at this point.  It’s possible they were still warming it up.  Eventually it was brought out by a different guy, about 10 or so minutes after my server had first mentioned it.  Right behind it by less than a minute was my salad.  The bread and oil/pesto dip is one of the first things I think about when I see Pasta Pomodoro.  It’s delicious and unlimited.  The bread was soft and just a touch warm.

My salad was a pretty decent size.  The dressing was already mixed in and coating each bit of Romain lettuce evenly.  A dozen or so small croutons were hiding underneath and around the outside.  A bit of shaved cheese topped it off.  I figured it was parmesan at first but later realized it was the same pecorino cheese (which, I just read, is made from sheep’s milk) that is on the bolognese.  The salad was fantastic.  The lettuce was crisp and very fresh.  Every bite had plenty of dressing and the garlic croutons were nice and crunchy.  I practically inhaled it in a matter of minutes.  After that I polished of the last piece of bread and waited a bit before my main dish came out.

A pile of rigatoni covered in meaty red sauce was topped with the shaved percorino cheese and then some grated parmesan which my server sprinkled on top with a spoon from a small bowl, rather than hand grated at the table.  Hiding below the pasta were little bites of meat from the sauce.  The rigatoni seemed to be cooked well.  Each peice was soft yet still had a bit a firmness to it’s structure.  The sauce was rich and plentiful.  I think I probably could have done with less or no parmesan.  It was surprisingly potent and added a little too much saltiness.  The parts that had less cheese were very tasty and overall I was quite happy with this dish.  I ended up taking half of it home since the bread and salad were more filling than I expected.

I find the food here to be pretty good and the prices very reasonable.  For this lunch I spent about $10.  My server was very nice, though he seemed to have his hands full with just a few tables.  At one point after requesting some more water I watched as he completely forgot about it and went about doing other things behind the bar, then realized what he was missing as he was off to serve some wine and discretely asked the other server to get it, which then happened very quickly.  Italian is not really one of my favorites, but Pasta Pomodoro does it well enough to keep themselves in the back of my mind when I’m thinking about where to go to eat over on this side of Roseville.

Website: http://pastapomodoro.com/

#93: Pasta Village, Inc.

Pasta Village is a little fast Italian joint at Lead Hill & Rocky Ridge.  I must have looked in the windows a dozen or more times as I passed by on my way to Panda Express next door but never turned around and went inside.  I’ve rarely seen more than a few people in there at a time and I was kind of waiting to see if it would eventually close.  Obviously that didn’t happen.  Today I decided to check it out and cross it off my list.

I walked in just after 4pm.  There was a small group ordering ahead of me and a couple in the dining room eating.  I had several minutes to look over the menu before I was up.  Most of my attention was on the pretty good selection of pastas.  I nearly went with Fettuccine Alfredo but decided I should try for something a little less boring.  Skimming further down the menu my eye caught the Tequila Chicken or Shrimp Spaghetti.  The description reads “sauteed shrimp or grilled chicken in jalapeno creme sauce with sweet pepper, onion and fresh cilantro leaves.”  My decision was made.

I moved down the counter to the register and placed my order with the only person working at the time (who turned out to be the owner).  He warned me that the Tequila Chicken Spaghetti was spicy, which was nice, but I was ready.  I ordered a soda and the total came to just over 10 bucks.  By the soda machine there are all the condiments and utensils you need, including oil and balsamic vinegar.  I looked over everything and sat down, though I forgot to actually pick anything up.  The owner was quite busy in the kitchen for a solid 10 minutes or so preparing orders for myself as well as the group ahead of me.  Eventually he brought it out and also went over to that counter and brought me some napkins and a fork.

I was pretty surprised by the size of my dish, it was definitely more than I was going to be eating and it’s not like I wasn’t hungry.  There was quite a lot of little pieces of chicken evenly distributed around the bowl.  I knew this was a jalapeno creme sauce, but I didn’t expect there to be full on slices of jalapenos in it.  Included with the dish was a small slice of bread.  I got up and grabbed a small to go container and the oil and balsamic vinegar.  This was a great idea and the bread was good this way. It ended up doubling as my leftovers container later. I dug into my creamy spaghetti and found that the sauce wasn’t actually very spicy at all.  In fact it was a lot closer to the Alfredo sauce I nearly ordered.  There was a hint of pepper to it to be sure, but nothing like I had expected, especially with the warning at the register.  The jalapenos themselves did in fact pack a bit of a punch though.

I was really happy with my choice in that it had a creamy delicious sauce and lots of chicken.  I’m not a fan of cilantro for the most part but I honestly couldn’t really taste it that much, particularly when I picked up a piece of jalapeno.  The spaghetti was well done and there was plenty of the whole thing left over to take home as lunch for tomorrow making it a pretty good value.  I won’t be passing this one up so often in the future and I’d definitely like to check out a panini next time.

Website: http://www.pastavillage.com/