As far as owner Michael Hackett can figure, La Casa Sorrento has been supplying Salinas with pizza pies since the days of the Eisenhower administration. Hackett himself remembers going there in high school, right after it moved from its Front Street location to Oldtown.
Back then, the proprietor was none other than Hackett’s high school counselor, one Mr. Gunderson. It was a popular place, with good pizza and terrific lasagna and a thick, mildly spicy sauce that was Sorrento’s signature flavor.
But hard times fell on La Casa Sorrento. It changed hands, wore down and wound up a hard-luck beer joint. When its long run sputtered to a close last year, Hackett and his wife Sylvia took notice. Then they bought the place, gutted, replastered, painted and outfitted it with tall spindly booths salvaged from one of Salinas’ grand old hotels. Out came the checkered tablecloths and parmesan cheese shakers and red candles with their white mesh casings. The gorgeous bar got a high gloss and a small but attractive collection of Monterey County wines to accompany the half-dozen beers on tap.
Best of all, Team Hackett secured the pièce de résistance for the Feb. 13 opening: Mr. Gunderson’s recipes.
The sum of their efforts is a cozy storefront pizza parlor with a faithful local following and loads of homestyle charm and flavor. Walking in the door tells you most of what you need to know. Families crowd around long tables, reaching across each other for slices of the pie and trying not to upset pitchers of root beer. Locals perch at the bar or nurse glasses of wine at their tables. I even saw two tough-looking guys in ball caps with a frilly dish of pale green spumoni ice cream between them.
One evening not long ago, Katherine and I sashayed on in. Katherine enjoyed a pint of Moretti ($4) while I had a glass of Paraiso Chardonnay ($7). I usually think of a wine bar as having flights, little-known wines, that sort of thing. This is not that kind of wine bar. But it’s nice to have something besides plonk to choose from when eating pizza, so I’m not quibbling over semantics.
We ordered a caesar salad ($5.75) to split, and, on our young waitress’ recommendation, an order of garlic cheese bread ($3.50). Holy mackerel! The salad was huge. It was also smothered in too much dressing and too many croutons (you heard right), which undermined its chances at greatness. Still, with big warm hunks of delicious garlic bread smothered in mozzarella to keep us busy, we were happy just nibbling, drinking and jabbering away.
Choosing dinner was tough. The “legendary” lasagna is the best seller, Hackett says, and the ravioli is described as “famous,” a claim not to be considered lightly. Moreover, the primavera comes with whole-wheat penne in a rare and welcome nod to health-conscious patrons. This menu makes Casa Sorrento a place where kids and grownups can dine together in true harmony.
But I was wearing my pizza goggles, in a manner of speaking, and nothing less than two specialty Sicilian pies ($12.95 each) would do.
The pizzas arrived at our table on wooden boards; two flat, thin-crusted pies about 14” in diameter, one studded with artichoke hearts, red onion and feta, the other graveled over with ground sausage and mushrooms. The crusts were pleasantly crispy, the sauce spicy, the cheese plentiful enough to be satisfying but not so heavy as to be hard. I was especially impressed by the fact that there was fennel in the sausage—and by the fact that the sausage was ground, not sliced. We ate our little slices up and reached for more.
Casa Sorrento is open for lunch, too, with smaller pasta dishes, a nice selection of salads (including the Wedge, an iceberg lettuce-and-blue cheese creation) and the Greek-accented Sorrento salad. An array of hot sandwiches ($6.25 apiece) rounds out the menu—think sandwiches with hot pastrami, homemade meatballs, Italian sausage and hot salami and you get the idea. It’s all about hearty food and comfort at Casa Sorrento, just the way it used to be.
Apparently people are liking it. “We see people eating and staying, talking and having a glass of wine,” Hackett says. “It’s nice to have the small, old school neighborhood gathering place, and not just people eating and leaving.”
LA CASA SORRENTO PIZZERIA & WINE BAR
393 Salinas St., Salinas • 11am-8pm Tues-Fri; 4pm-close Sat-Sun. • 757-2720.