La Dolce Vita
Two Italian kitchens serve the sweet life
By Greg Sabin
Sampino’s Kitchen at Joe Marty’s offers a traditional Italian American experience, spaghetti and meatballs included, on Broadway. Across the grid, newcomer Willow presents Italian food through a fine-dining lens. Both are special places.
SAMPINO’S KITCHEN AT JOE MARTY’S
Joe Marty was a legend when he opened his bar at the Tower Theatre in 1951. A former major league baseball player and star for the minor league Sacramento Solons, Marty parlayed his recognition into a successful saloon and eatery.
Marty died in 1984 and new owners moved in. A fire in 2005 closed the joint for a decade. When Bill and son Michael Sampino took over restaurant operations in 2017, they aimed to honor Marty’s legacy and do what they do best, cook family-style Italian food. They succeeded.
Today the place is known for packed houses, a convivial bar and one of the best meatball subs this side of Chicago. The menu is the star, along with raucous laughter that never seems to diminish.
You can sit beneath a framed jersey of San Francisco Giants great Juan Marichal while tucking into a plate of cheese tortellini and bolognese sauce. Or you might be parked underneath a portrait of Frank Sinatra while enjoying fettuccine alfredo.
Where some “red sauce joints” skimp on the finer points, Sampino’s emphasizes the little things. Each recipe is built with care and expertise. Every entrée comes with a complimentary salad.
The meatball sub is slyly sophisticated. The combination of house-made meatballs with pepperoncini, provolone, tomato, garlic aioli and balsamic is a dish greater than its parts. I’ve yet to find an equal.
Whether it’s spumoni ice cream at the end of a meal, a handshake from the owner or the mob movies playing on TV, Sampino’s brings a smile.
In another dining universe, Willow offers southern Italian as haute cuisine. The dining room, attached to The Exchange Hotel by Hilton, is subdued and elegant. The service is as fine as you will get anywhere in town.
A short walk from Golden 1 Center, Willow feels like a quiet retreat at Fourth and J streets. The 1914 building, former home to the California Fruit Exchange, provides a stately edifice. Inside, the comforting weight of soft fabrics and plummy hues feel miles from the thoroughfare just beyond the door.
Service at Willow cannot be improved upon. The polite and attentive waitstaff see to every need. Whether it’s a wine top-off or a refolded napkin, no detail is ignored.
Opened since last September, the kitchen delivers elegant presentations and creative recipes with a little unevenness, which one might expect from a new restaurant.
The gnocchi are a must. Big, pillowy dumplings are served alongside delicata squash and blistered tomatoes and topped with goat cheese and sage. It’s a seasonal exploration that hits the mark.
The small but elegant bar is a gorgeous place to grab a drink or small plate before a game or at the end of a Downtown visit. Check out the happy hour menu. Meatballs and prosciutto are fantastic small plates.
Old school to new school, down home to high-end, Sampino’s and Willow satisfy your desire for Italian food. Buon appetito!
Greg Sabin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @insidesacramento.