Formoli’s Bistro
3260 J Street – Sacramento

Words & Photos by Adam Saake

Eating is a special experience. Food at once entices our senses with glorious smells, vibrant colors and curious textures while filling the basic human necessity of calming our hunger and nurturing our bodies. The experience continues with our journeys into cooking and learning how to feed ourselves and others in a way that makes meals memorable landmarks in our lives. And the final movement is to be fortunate enough to watch masters at work in their kitchens. When a dish is masterfully prepared right before your eyes, epiphanies occur and all of a sudden it all makes sense.

There are few places in Sacramento that can deliver an experience that encompasses all of those elements, and that’s OK. Sometimes we just want to be to ourselves and enjoy the company we’re with or maybe just grab something and go. But for the whole experience, for the spectacle des spectacles, there are places like Formoli’s Bistro in East Sacramento that, from the moment you open the door, you are drawn into all things exciting about dining out.

The brief hallway leads you into a bistro alive with kitchen sounds and smells and neighbors dining elbow to elbow for the sake of good cuisine. For those intimate nights or celebratory get-togethers, the dining room is just big enough to accommodate your fancy. But the best seat in the house is at the bar, sitting across from chefs Aimal Formoli and Joseph Contreras, watching the plates unfurl in a flurry of spices and demi-glaze. Hands fly in the air as seasonings fall and the pans in motion add a percussive backbeat to the chatter of the bistro.

But I digress. We’re here to talk about the food and what a mouthful there is to say. Out came the stuffed dates, a small offering that reflects Formoli’s Persian heritage mixed with his French training from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Stuffed with goat cheese and crispy pancetta and served on top of Belgian endive (an interesting white, crisp vegetable that grows from the roots of chicory) and topped with Champagne vinaigrette ($12), this dish is the flagship of Formoli’s cooking and is a gateway to the rest of his remarkable dishes.

The bruschetta arrived next, and I was excited to see what Chef Formoli was going to do with this classic Italian appetizer. Thick slices of bread with a perfectly toasted crust were topped with the cool, acidic sweetness of the cherry tomatoes and rounded out with a nice salty, olive oil tapenade. Each of Formoli’s dishes have such an incredible color palette that your eyes light up as they arrive. The brown, white and soft green of the dates or the yellows and reds of the bruschetta are nothing short of dazzling. Even purple makes an appearance in the blue cheese smashed potatoes that accompany the filet.

“As a chef, I try to be an artist too. That’s kind of my thing. I just love when a plate pops out at you. The colors are big for me on the plates,” says Formoli.

Upon my first visit, I was thankfully introduced to the whiskey burger that knocked my socks off. Formoli sears his blended, pepper encrusted patties in whiskey before finishing them in the oven. A perfectly toasted bun marries the cheddar cheese and habañero aioli to complete one of the best burgers in town. But while I ate, I watched a number of dishes being prepared including a pasta dish with medium rare flat iron steak sliced thinly on top. A white wine cream sauce with fettuccini noodles is one thing, but then to top it with such a great cut of beef that is cooked carefully and arrives tender is a whole different ball game. The fresh herbs and tomatoes make this dish pop, and you have the creaminess of the sauce with the savory texture of the beef–a real entrée.

Formoli’s is approaching its third year of business and not without its share of blood, sweat and tears along the way.

“What me and my wife [Suzanne Ricci] had saved is what we dumped into it and then halfway through, we ran out of every resource; every dime we had,” says Formoli.

Their dream was so big that these obstacles didn’t stand in their way. Quietly throughout the years, tucked away in the non-descript East Sacramento shopping center, Formoli’s Bistro built an outstanding menu that developed just as Formoli and Ricci wanted.

“Not being in the limelight too soon was good, because I was able to fine tune everything in the restaurant,” Formoli says. “That’s the last thing I wanted was hype.”

Then there’s the service. Front of the house experience is overflowing from servers like Patrick O’Neill, Sarah Heimann and Christina Gonzales, the latter two recipients of the Sacramento Bee’s “best server” accolade. The best word here is genuine. Customers aren’t talked “at” but rather delicately handled and the focus is on enhancing the meal rather than up-selling. With such a high turnover rate for servers in the restaurant industry, Formoli has found a team he calls his “family” that has been with him since the doors opened.

Look out for some cosmetic work being done on the inside and outside of the bistro this year and if you haven’t let the Formoli’s family wow you yet, there’s no time like the present.