Steppin’ Out – The (Little Italian) Place, Placerville

For the past couple of weeks, Facebook has been alive with comments about the recent opening of The Place, a small Italian restaurant at the southwest corner of Pleasant Valley and Buck’s Bar roads, a few miles east of Diamond Springs.

Russ Salazar and I don’t usually visit restaurants this soon after they open, but when I saw they had a meatball “Grind-ah” I had to go.

Years ago, when I lived in southern California, my brother and I would go to the parking lot of a local supermarket and from a small trailer buy a meatball grinder, which was a long Italian roll full of warm meatballs, marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. To it the proprietor would offer a generous sprinkle of crushed chile flakes, which he, and the two of us, believed completed the sandwich. They were delicious and often the dinner for we two bachelors.

Obviously, when I saw The Place had the meatball “Grind-ah” on their menu, I knew I couldn’t wait to try it.

If you are wondering, the words Submarine, Hoagie and Grinder are the names of similar sandwiches with different origins, be it location or the group who named it. Most are on a long roll, but sometimes aren’t.

I’m still a bit incapacitated due to a recent total knee replacement, so Russ offered to come by my house, pick me and my walker up and take us to The Place. Although it was close to 2 p.m. on a Saturday (and their Grand Opening Weekend), we were able to find a parking place near the door and seats inside at a table with higher chairs (easier for me to get in and out of).

Once you find a table, you follow a line by the menu, which is posted on the wall, order your food at the counter and they give you a number for your table. Russ did all the hard work and ordered us a Meatball “Grind-ah” and a Sausage “Grind-ah.” A few minutes later he would add a small slice of Truffled Mushroom Sicilian Pizza, which is pre-made and offered cold or warmed. He opted to have it warmed.

He wanted a diet soda to have with his meal, but their selection of sodas are all in bottles and a bit fancy for him. He and I both decided to have water, which the have self-serve with lemon in it.

Soon the sandwiches, both on house baked rolls, arrived and we split them.

I started with the meatball “Grind-ah” and it was delicious, albeit a bit bland for me. It contained handmade meatballs, marinara, provolone and mozzarella.

I asked the always smiling and very friendly lovely young lady who delivered our food for some crushed chilies to put on my sandwich (don’t most pizza places have packets of those?) and was told they did not have them. It was still very good, but I believe it would have been better with a bit of a bite from them. Russ like it, but thought it tasted a bit too canned “tomatoey.”

The Sausage “Grind-ah” was a complete surprise. It contained slow cooked Italian sausage, onions, roasted peppers, smoked mozzarella and Dijon.

I expected pieces of the usual fatty and delicious Italian sausage like are found on most pizzas, but these were a different type of Italian sausage, drier and sliced thin. It was very good, the flavors really worked together and, as with the other sandwich, the bread was outstanding.

The Sicilian Pizza was on a spongy, inch thick crust with truffled mushrooms, caramelized onions, asiago, mozzarella and olive oil. I loved the taste and the crust, but Russ thought there was really too much crust. “Pizza has vastly improved since they went to super thin crusts,” he commented to me. I guess he should stay away from Sicilian pizza with its thick crust.

Their menu starts with a list of Antipasti from Garlic Cheese Bread to Bruchetta and “Mickey’s Big Balls” (a meatball sandwich minus the bread). These are followed by the Insalata, which include The Original Grammy’s, Caesar, Caprese and more.

The Panini & Grind-ah’s include a Caprese, Sweet Smokey Chicken and the two we tried.

Under Piatto di Pasta you will find Smokey Maccheroni e Formaggio, Linguine Bolognese, Pesto di Limone, Boscaiola, Linguini Marinara, Ravioli e Pornodoro and a 10 layer Lasagne alla Bolognese (limited amount, served Friday and Saturday only)

Finally, what you are probably looking for, Pizza and Calzones. These are prepared with 24 hour fermented dough and baked in a 700 degree wood fired oven.

The mouth watering list includes Trio Formaggio, Quattro Formaggio, Smokey Mushroom, Americana, Salaciccia, Mickey’s Meatball, The Green Monsta’, the True Woodsman, Sweet Pig, the House Margherita and Prosciuto. Oh, for dessert Tiramisu and Cannoli, both handmade.

Beer, wine and bottled soda are available to accompany your meal.

The Place is presently open from noon until 8, Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, and until 9 or later Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Both outdoor and indoor seating available, but remember, it is a small restaurant.

For more information, call (530) 621-1680 or visit thelittleitalianplace.com. And yes, this The Place has the same owner and chef as the very popular The Place in Roseville.

Oh, while waiting for your food, check out the lamp shades made from old tomato cans, colanders and even a giant whisk from a commercial mixer.

Gekkeikan Sake – they tested the water

Over the past centuries California has lured people to it for its many assets: its climate, its farm lands and, most of all its gold. Today the gold is still here, not only in the ground but also in the water.

In 1989 Gekkeikan Sake (USA) , Inc. was established in Folsom, California, the first Gekkeikan sake brewing facility outside of Japan. And what would bring them here, two things, the first being obvious since Folsom is near a major rice growing area and rice is needed to make sake . The second and most important to them was the water.

The company had been looking at a location in Louisiana, but Folsom won out because of the water. Remove the chemicals and minerals from the public water, put back everything but the chlorine and you have water with many of the qualities of the water found in Fushimi, Japan, where Gekkeikan originated, just what they were looking to find.

Japan’s tradition of sake brewing began more than 2,000 years ago shortly after rice cultivation was introduced from China. Though the first few centuries yielded a beverage quite unlike that of today, years of experience perfected brewing techniques and increased sake’s overall appeal and popularity.

In 1637, Gekkeikan’s founder, Jiemon Okura established his sake brewery in the town of Fushimi, a location well-known for its high quality of water. Access to the ideal ingredients combined with a convenient location enabled Okura and his successors’ business to thrive in the years that followed.

In 1905, the brand name Gekkeikan (meaning “crown of laurel”) was adopted as the company’s formal pledge to excellence. Through this commitment, the company became a true leader in the industry and pioneered a number of research and development efforts. The successful results of these endeavors have enabled Gekkeikan to become their nation’s most popular brand in 1953.

With a greater world wide appreciation of Japanese cuisine over the last decades, Gekkeikan sake has been experiencing a tremendous growth in popularity. To meet this increase in demand is why Gekkeikan Sake (USA) , Inc. was established in Folsom. And, in reply to the increased demand for their product, the Folsom facility is in the process of expanding.

Sake is a naturally fermented alcoholic beverage classified in the same general category with wine and beer. Made from the simple ingredients of rice and water, it goes through a fermentation process which, essentially converts starch into sugar and sugar into alcohol through the work of koji (a fungi enzyme) and yeast.

To start the process, the rice, short-grained Japonica, is first polished to remove the outer layers. The starch in rice in in the middle, so the amount of polishing determines the quality of the sake. Depending upon the type of sake being made, 30 or 40 percent of the outer layer is removed and two either used independently or blended.

The Folsom plant makes only five of Gekkeikan’s many types of sake: Haiku (premium), Silver, Black and Gold, Traditional, which is also available in in Traditional Light and Draft, a sake that is not pasteurized, but cold filtered and meant to be served cold.

Using simple terms to describe this 2000 year old process, the polished rice, which arrives in one-ton bags, is cleaned, steeped and steamed. To a portion of the rice is then added the koji enzyme and to the other portion, the yeast and water. Then everything is combined in a fermentation tank where the starch is ultimately converted to alcohol. After 30 days, the fermented mixture, now called Moromi, is pressed through filters to remove the liquid which is then pasturized. The Draft Sake is not pasteurized, but instead undergoes ultra filtration to achieve this same result, protecting its smooth, fresh flavor. The remaining solids, or sake cake, are recycled as cattle food.
Then the sake is transferred to aging tanks where it rests for several months and acquires its mild and smooth taste. Finally, about a year after starting, the sake is bottled.

The sterile bottles are filled on a bottling line similar to one used to bottle wine. While rapidly moving through the line the bottles are filled, capped and labeled, after which they are boxed for shipment. A bottle from each batch is kept for testing purposes should there be a comment or complaint from a consumer.

Although most is, not all sake is bottled. Some is put into 18 liter cubes for restaurant use and even a1000 liter “tote” for shipment to other places, such as Brazil, where it will be later bottled.

Not all sake that leaves the Folsom facility is the same. Sake can have an alcohol content of from five to 20 percent and certain countries and even states have regulations on the maximum amount of alcohol it can legally contain. To insure that the sake meets the high standards of Gekkeikan and any government regulations, all batches of sake made are tested for quality and alcohol content at a lab in the facility.

To Gekkeikan, consistency in all the aspects of the process is most important. That is why Gekkeikan sake is the number one selling sake in the world.

In addition to sake, the Folsom facility also makes a Kobai Plum wine, which is California white wine to which the essence of the Sonoma plums is added.

At the tasting room you can taste Gekkeikan sake and plum wine and purchase them. All are available in bottles of different sizes, while the Traditional sake is also available in the 1.8 liter “taru,” a smaller version of the large ceremonial Japanese barrel, which makes an excellent gift. In addition to the sake made at the Folsom facility, they also have other Gekkeikan sakes, imported from Japan to taste and for sale.

The pleasant tasting room personnel are delighted to teach you about sake, the proper serving containers (porcelain for warm sake, glass for cold sake and bamboo or lacquer boxes for either) and the proper temperature at which it should be served, depending upon the type. This is especially important as the present trend is to drink sake at colder temperatures, rather than as traditionally warmed. They will also explain to you that each kind of sake, like different kinds of wine, has a slightly different aroma and taste. To complete your education on sake they will also tell you how sake can be used to prepare unique and delicious mixed drinks and will even provide you with a brochure of delicious recipes. And, don’t miss the beautiful shirts, hats and accessories for sale in the tasting room.

The tasting room also periodically hosts informative hands-on introductory sushi making classes taught by local sushi chefs as they share inside secrets and techniques from the exotic world of Japanese cuisine. Called Simply Sushi the classes focus on three specific elements of sushi making: preparing sushi rice, selecting fish and making California and hand rolls.

Classes are held on three levels: Children, adults and advanced. the next series of classes starts in February. Call for more information.

The tasting room at Gekkeikan Sake in Folsom is in a beautiful building with a large Koi pond on three sides. It is open from10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. In addition, self guided tours of the facility can be enjoyed by groups of less than eight, while guided tours are available for larger groups by appointment.

Gekkeikan Sake is located at 1136 Sibley St., in Folsom. For more information, call (916) 985-3111.

Steppin’ Out – This, That and Other Things

Every now and then either Russ Salazar, I or both of us drop by a fast-food place to try out their latest offerings, most of which have the famous “For a Limited Time” notice on them. So, I am going to mention the latest one first since some of the rest may already be “retired.”

We decided we needed to try Carl Jr’s new Baby Back Rib Burger, which features a charbroiled beef patty, boneless baby back ribs, Mississippi honey BBQ sauce, crispy fried onions, and pickles on a Premium Bun. Well, sort of. Here they use Cattleman’s BBQ sauce, which must be a regional thing.

We had a coupon that would get us an extra burger if we bought a combo, so we did that. I put the extra burger in a cooler I carry for later consumption (I actually froze it and gave it to my neighbor.)

Along with that we tried their “limited time” $2.49 Jalapeño Double Cheeseburger that features Santa Fe Sauce, jalapeños, pepperjack cheese, two charbroiled beef patties, lettuce and tomato, all served on a four inch (kid’s size) plain bun.

We had them cut in two for us.

Both of us liked the Rib Burger, real rib meat and a good taste. I like lettuce and tomato on my burgers and feel like I am cheating when I have something like this. However, barbecue is served with only bread, onions and pickles at most barbecue joints around the USA.

The Jalapeño burger we both liked better. Not too hot, but with a nice “warm” taste. “Just the right amount of jalapeño,” Russ remarked. Me, I really like it and the lettuce and tomato added to this one.

We also tried the new BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger and BBQ Bacon Chicken Sandwich at Jack in the Box. We had a coupon, in fact a couple of coupons, so Russ ordered a large drink and got us a small order of Curly Fries for free.

They have two kinds of barbecue sauce for the sandwiches, sweet and spicy. We ordered the Cheeseburger with the sweet sauce and the Chicken Sandwich with the spicy sauce. Both came with bacon, onion rings, lettuce, tomato and pickles.

We asked for them to be cut in two, but they forgot. I took them back and they cut them partially in two. Russ and his trusty knife finished the cutting.

They were good, but not extraordinary, and very bland, in spite of the aforementioned spicy sauce on one of them.

The Curly Fries were partially undercooked and partially over cooked. I think they had been sitting around for a while. I usually complain about fries like this, but I was out of complaints for that day.

On the way home from my son’s house in San Jose, I stopped by a KFC to try the Zinger sandwich. It was late morning and the place was empty, so they had to cook the sandwich fresh for me. I really liked it: crisp, tasty and nicely sauced. I only had the sandwich, which is about four bucks, but you can get the combo with drink, potato wedges and a cookie for a buck more.

Taco Bell seems to add and subtract specials faster than anyone else, so usually they are gone before I can write about them.

I tried their Chicken Chips, part of their “Naked Chicken” series of promotions. They are simply coated and deep fried flattened pieces of white meat chicken, like the chicken taco shell they had a couple of months ago. I bought the five dollar lunch box, which came with the chips and a cheesy dipping sauce, Crispy Taco, Burrito Supreme and a drink.

I like the Chicken Chips, mostly without the cheesy dipping sauce, and the Crunchy Taco. After all, that taco is their original product they built their business on. However, the Burrito Supreme was a joke.

They show a picture of an open-ended burrito with meat, lettuce, tomato and cheese, but what I got was a folded over burrito mostly filled with beans. Now and then I would come across something similar in texture to a piece of tomato or lettuce, but that was it.

I went back and asked if what I was served was the Burrito Supreme and was told, “Yes.” Okay, I won’t try that again. The dollar menu half-pound bean burrito from Del Taco is better.

The best deals at Taco Bell are their four “Meal Deals,” which cost under three dollars and come with a drink, a bag of Doritos and, depending on the location, either a Chicken Burrito, a Double Decker Taco, a Gordita Supreme or a Beefy Five Layer Burrito.

If you recall, they started out at $2 about seven years ago and have slowly climbed upwards in price, but still remain cheap. You can always add something if that isn’t enough food.

I especially like the Gordita Supreme, which is Meal Deal “C.”. I usually take the chips home for later.