by Alice Levitt
3 Main Street, Montpelier, 802-223-0229
Sometimes it's hard to find an excuse to write about the most popular restaurants. Sarducci's has been a Montpelier staple since 1994, crawling with legislators, business people and families. Unfortunately, because it's been smooth sailing for so long, it usually falls below my radar.
That is, until I looked at the menu recently and realized something about Sarducci's that I didn't know before: It may look like a special-occasion place — and it's easy to rack up a big bill there — but, if you're careful, it can be a bargain.
That was my goal when I visited on Sunday, before my trip through Central Vermont Community Players' "Nightmares on College Street" at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
The atmosphere was certainly pleasant. The walls are painted with typically Italian scenes and an igloo-shaped, wood-burning oven, which cooks much of the restaurant's food, serves as a lovely centerpiece to the room. My one complaint was that the relative darkness made it difficult to photograph my food and impossible to capture the rest of the restaurant.
Any Italian eatery worth its carbs starts the meal with a basket of warm bread and garlic-infused olive oil (above). The bread was suitably warm and chewy, but I had an unexpected quibble: The olive oil, while nice and tangy with raw garlic, was served in too deep a bowl. To make contact with the garlic, I had to dip my bread far within, resulting in a soggy, oily mess. I ended up pouring some out onto my plate, instead.
Things got far, far better when the appetizer arrived. I want a plate of Sarducci's polenta al forno for my birthday cake this year. It is ideally decadent and sweet for the job.
Two fat slices of creamy tasting polenta — filled with kernels of fresh, whole corn — are oven crisped, then covered in sundried tomatoes and mushrooms. The whole thing is bathed in a pool of sherry cream sauce. Each element has its own strong, distinct flavor, all of which are excellen
Entrées were tasty, too, though not as earth shattering as the polenta. The menu lists mozzarella twice as an ingredient in the pollo al forno, and bubbly cheese certainly characterizes the dish. The most distinct flavor, though, came from the thin slices of gorgeously smoky chicken. Mushrooms populated the tureen, both in their physical form and the salty (maybe a little too salty) broth that sat at the bottom. Pasta remained wonderfully al dente, but I can't help but wish that the dish had been uniformly creamy, instead of cheesey on top of liquid.
Fans of the pies at Three Tomatoes Trattoria will likely enjoy the pizzas at Sarducci's, too. We tried the Salerno, a meatball, onion and pepper pizza.
The crust was crisp and startlingly large for $9.99. I wish there had been a bit more tomato sauce and that it had been tangier, but the crackling, fresh mozzarella nearly made up for it.
The onions and peppers were sweet and soft, but not caramelized. The crumbly, herbaceous meatballs were the star of the pizza, however. I would have been happy to eat a big plate of them alone.
All in all, Sarducci's was a happy discovery. In terms of both price and formality, it falls right between the Trattoria Delias and l'Amantes of the world and the ultra-casual glories of the pizzeria at Junior's Italian. And who am I kidding? I'll be making the trip back for the polenta sooner than even I probably realize.