My recent whine about the lack of independent restaurants worthy of a foodie’s heart in Elk Grove netted a reader’s suggestion: Try Palermo, the family-owned and -operated Italian restaurant on Emerald Oak Drive.
Actually, I had been there once before. It was a Friday night, and I was with the group of knitters who had just lost Jennings Wine Bar as their meeting place. We were seated in the back room where the bar is, which would have been a fine place to be if only a server had wafted through every once in a while. They did not. It could have been the sight of a dozen or so women, all wielding pointy sticks with odd bits of yarn dangling from them, however, and since I remembered the food being good, I was game to try it again.
This time, though, I would go without an entourage. This time, I would sit like a lady at a table in the main dining room and make like I was Ruth Reichl, the former food critic from the New York Times. Actually, Ruth rarely dined alone, so I did take one person with me—but purely for research purposes. My esteemed editor here at Elk Grove Patch, Felicia Mello, is a bona fide Italian girl, raised on noodles and gravy (spaghetti and sauce for you laypeople), and she would serve as my expert on the flavors of Italian cuisine.
The evening started, as had my first visit, in the bar area. However, this time it was well-populated with People Having Fun, something that always bodes well for a dining experience. As I waited for Felicia to arrive, the barmaid was so instantly attentive that I didn’t have time to mull over my order. When I asked her if they had a special cocktail, she wanted more information. “I want something tall, something with ice, something not too sweet,” I elaborated. She suggested a Blood Orange Organic Screwdriver, made with Absolut Mandarin vodka and organic blood orange juice, which was perfect—exactly what I had wanted, without knowing it.
When Felicia arrived, we were seated—like ladies—at a table in the front, and within minutes a plate of complimentary crostini arrived. As an amuse bouche—which literally translates as pleasing the mouth—the crostini were more than successful. Felicia deemed that they “had the perfect quantities of olive oil and oregano, and capers for added interest.” They were good, we were hungry and the bread was excellent as well.
The menu at Palermo is well-rounded, offering traditional courses listed in Italian with English translations, in keeping with the authentic but unpretentious ethos of the restaurant: Antipasti (Appetizers), Insalate (Salads), Zuppe (Soup). The restaurant, whose formal name is Palermo Ristorante Italiano, prides itself on serving classic cuisine in a family-friendly atmosphere. In fact, the absolute emphasis of Palermo is on family. It is owned and run by several generations of the Toccagino clan. They not only make the food, from family recipes that patriarch Giovanni brought from Southern Italy; they serve it as well.
Felicia and I decided to share an appetizer, Stuffed Artichoke, which was cooked to perfection in a broth that had an intriguing smokey taste. We both ordered from the specials menu that is offered daily. She had the Lasagna, and I had the Oxtail Alla Romana. Let’s talk about them: The lasagna was huge, pasta layered with pork and eggs and cooked in a rich tomato sauce. Felicia pronounced the flavor excellent, though the noodles were a bit dry on the edges. My oxtail was cooked osso buco style, served with soft polenta and spinach, and I couldn’t argue with the way it tasted. It was even better the next day when I could pick up the bones and suck the meat from them.
For dessert, we shared the Sicilian Cannoli, which Felicia praised for the use of “orange peel in the cannoli, which is rare and authentically Italian, and breaks up the potential monotony of the dense ricotta filling.”
All told, our dining experience was all that a couple of foodies could hope for. The service, once again, was somewhat slow, but that may be a function of the fact that the Toccaginos are doing it all. Whatever, the food and the charm and the warmth of the place—we were treated like family, complete with parting hugs from Giovanni’s lovely wife, Pina—are worth it all. It’s our own little bit of Italy tucked into a corner of Elk Grove.