When I think Italian food, I think: simple. Cheese, tomatoes, bread – basics made beautiful with a little guidance from family recipes and a few cloves of garlic. And simple is the theme at Little Sicily, a new Salinas dig providing comfort and yumminess in a small, casual dining room at affordable prices.

It’s early for this spot, so I found forgiveness about the lack of wine (the license is in process) on a cold, breezy, Cab-craving night. In any case, the food to come would be so warming I’d forget about the vino.

A few classic starters tempt the appetite, like hot wings with ranch ($9.50), mozzarella sticks with marinara ($9.50), or a pair of meatballs or sausages ($4), traditional offerings all around.

Italian places aren’t known for salad, but I felt like something fresh alongside the indulgences. A side of house greens did the trick, but it’s not what I’d go back for. Iceberg lettuce came topped with shredded carrots, croutons and a somewhat soggy slice of tomato. The balsamic dressing seemed commercial, which made me eager for the main course.

The wait wasn’t long, despite the eight-table restaurant being quite full and alive with laughter and familial vibes. Co-owner Izeth Rico delivered friendly service as she cruised around, keeping everything running smoothly. Rico and her husband Michael Pappalardo opened Little Sicily to do something good for their kids, who can be found helping out six days of the week. Pappalardo brings 25 years of experience from managing Gianni’s, a well-loved Italian spot on Lighthouse in Monterey, which he left to do his thing here. “He saw this place, he liked it, and now we’re here,” Rico says.

Garlic is the name of the game here

Pasta and pizza dominate at Little Sicily, so it seemed prudent to try one of each. The homemade vegetable lasagna called my name, boasting mushrooms, onion and spinach in a recipe similar to “Nonna’s” meat lasagna (both $12.50) which comes with a less sweet meat sauce instead of the veggies and marinara. The sauce made the whole dish pop, showing off a complex tomatoey depth that can only come from a good chunk of cooking time in which produce and herbs can simmer and marry. Creamy spinach and a few mushrooms sat between tender slabs of pasta and cheese, all drenched in the aforementioned marinara to create a decadent symphony of flavors. Served in a small boat dish, it was not only tasty but also nicely presented. Garlic bread on the side came smothered in butter and a thick paste of parmesan, garlic and parsley, a yummy sponge for soaking up extra sauce although it could use a little less salt.

Our table held a metal pizza stand before we even ordered, providing another attractive presentation platform. The vegetarian sounded appealing, with bell peppers, mushrooms, onion, olives and tomatoes, as did the combo, which had all that plus pepperoni and sausage (both $13.50). Caught between the Hawaiian and margherita, however (both $12), I was pushed to the latter by a curiosity in their topping selections. Typical margherita features include fresh mozzarella and basil; Little Sicily’s skipped the mozz and added onion and crumbly garlic. Though names are important, the flavor of this pizza trumped the confusion about proper margherita traits. Huge hits of salty garlic were toned down by fresh basil, big thin slices of warm tomato and ample melted cheese over perfectly fluffy bread with crunchy crust. The onions added a welcome and interesting touch, making this pizza a definite winner.

Garlic is the name of the game here, which was apparent on a second visit too. I swung by to get a couple take-out dinners one night – fettuccine alfredo and a meatball sub – and the first smell out of the bag was a cozy and distinctly garlicky goodness.

I tried a bite of the sandwich first, a hearty affair with loads of sauce and mozzarella cheese blanketing several chunky meatballs ($9). Upon further investigation, the meatballs appeared chock full of garlic, exhibiting a very fragrant scent along with subtle parsley. The same delectable marinara from the lasagna complemented the meat and cheese here. Three simple ingredients, one impressive sub.

Tender fettuccine ($12) came next, which I shook up to try cover in alfredo sauce – alas, there wasn’t quite enough of it to really get the whole dish covered. The right smells were there: garlic and parmesan in cheesy cream, but a little bit more would have taken it to the next level. The garlic bread on the side was as salty yet yummy as before, with enough garlic to scare away vampires. Rico reinforces the ample use of garlic, attributing it to Sicilian cooking that she learned from her Sicilian mother-in-law: “That’s their thing. The recipes are very simple, and they use garlic in practically everything.”

One might wrap up their meal here with cannoli made fresh to order ($6), another delicacy from Pappalardo’s Sicilian side. From the classic dessert to entrees and sandwiches, the little team at this little spot does almost all the menu from scratch: “It’s tiny,” he says, “but we make everything fresh.”

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