Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mighty Marinara (Sac's Place, 25-41 Broadway)

There are at least a dozen restaurants in Astoria that likely qualify as somebody's neighborhood Italian restaurant. Sac's became that for us. We would go in biweekly for a slice at the attached pizzeria that peeks into the main dining room, and for actual dinners, on special occasions. (Sac's is reasonably priced, with most entrees in the upper teens, but felt less so in our younger, more cash-strapped days.) We'd never met either of the Sacramonte brothers, the proprietors of the establishment, but when we brought our non-New Yorker family in for a taste of "real New York Italian," one of them came over to greet us, saying it was a pleasure to see a pizza regular come in for a real meal. During the blackout of 2003, Sac's became everybody's neighborhood Italian restaurant -- it was the only place around that served food not powered by electricity -- and we joined the line ringing the block to get a slice from the coal-fired oven.

Still, we do our best to not let our fond personal memories stand in the way of the culinary truth, so bearing the sanctity of our mission in mind, we entered Sac's with a clean slate -- and the restaurant made it easy for us to stay true. The staff was low-key, accommodating, and efficient; the lighting appropriate for both a date and family night; the grapevine mural decorating the walls corny but appealing. The bread basket, which could easily have been filled with a perfunctory ciabatta, contained instead what appeared to be the yeasty, olive-oil-based focaccia that serves as a base for their delicious Sicilian slice. That's less a perfunctory gesture than a pre-meal meal.

For our money Sac's pizza is the best in the neighborhood, though we're open to changing that depending on what the every-restaurant-in-Astoria mission yields. But as we've pretty much exhausted the pizza menu, on this night, we ordered entrees. (Note also that ordering pizza by the pie is pricier than it should be.) Sac's is rightfully known for its medium-bodied, flavorful marinara -- reportedly seasoned with herbs grown on the owners' rooftops -- and the spinach ravioli showcases it well. Stuffed with fluffy ricotta, the ravioli, with its stripes of spinach dough, managed to be both light and substantial. The pollo rollatini was another success, with spinach and mozzarella carefully tucked into moist, tender chicken rolled into a dense and delicious cylindrical package.

Everything we ate was a success, actually, and Sac's can easily veer into excellence. We admit, though, that we sometimes wish there were more quirk at play. We'd love for them to surprise us with a wild choice on the menu, for the staff to show a bit more personality, for the Monday-night jazz trio to veer away from standards.

But asking for this would be like asking your grocery store to pipe in John Zorn instead of E.L.O. just to suit your taste: Unconventional is not what Sac's is after, nor should it be. A neighborhood place depends on reliability, not caprice. So we'll bask in Sac's success, marinara-dipped slice in hand, and be thankful.

Price: A little expensive relative to other Italian places for entrees and pies; slices are competitive with others.
Will we go again? It was our regular pizzeria before beginning this mission, and there's no reason to change that.

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