We were surprised when we walked in to the Corner Tavern & Grill in Folsom for the first time, because it appeared to be just what it says it is – an airy, well-lit bistro with framed baseball memorabilia on the walls, big-screen TVs, 12 brews on tap (plus bottles), and a long stone-topped bar overlooking a spacious dining room of well-positioned tables and banquettes.
Still, it wasn’t’ what we were expecting. After all, we were used to the all-Italian-all-the-time food and décor of Dominick’s Italian Market & Deli and the conjoined Dominick’s Trattoria & Bar in Granite Bay. You know – massive hero sandwiches and imported sauces in the deli, and mushroom risotto and veal scaloppini in the trattoria.
All three restaurants are owned by Dominick Bellizzi and his wife, Raquel, who landed in Sacramento by way of New Jersey in 2003 and brought “real deal” Italian cooking with them, using heirloom family recipes.
So, why a tavern and not one more destination for Italian cuisine?
“We were used to the pockets of neighborhoods in Jersey, where each one has its own tavern or pizzeria or bodega,” Dominick Bellizzi explains. “The neighborhood people support the neighborhood places there. (Likewise) the Granite Bay community has embraced us since we opened the deli and trattoria, always telling us, ‘You’re our neighborhood place.’ That resonated with me.”
He reasoned that if he could create a neighborhood destination in Granite Bay that fills with locals, he could do the same in Folsom, where the Bellizzis live.
“The Corner is growing into the social gathering place in the community,” he says. “People in Folsom are excited when they find out that we’re running the Corner, because they know the quality we bring, from eating at our Granite Bay restaurants.”
Bellizzi chose the Corner location carefully, at the intersection of Glenn and Sibley in a mixed-use neighborhood of residential and office buildings.
“I didn’t want to be where all the other places are, I wanted to be off the beaten path,” he says. “Just be that good-time neighborhood place where everyone knows your name.”
That said, how’s the food?
First, let’s look at the menus. There are four of them, one that includes weekday lunch and happy hour specials, and drink specials. The others roam from small plates to lunch and dinner, and include vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free items (yes, there’s the ragingly popular Impossible Burger).
“I want us to be known for having a very diverse menu,” Bellizzi says. Mission accomplished.
Dishes range from casual – 10-ounce burgers (never-frozen brisket-chuck blend), sandwiches and pasta, street tacos, pretzels and nachos – to sophisticated specialties that are right at home on upscale menus – Lebanese-style salmon, Tuscan chicken, blackened mahi with pineapple fried rice, prime rib French dip.
Of course, Bellizzi channeled his Granite Bay restaurants with stone-baked pizzas (lemon-arugula-salami is a find), calzone (folded pizza) and stromboli, that seldom-seen crisped-dough roulade filled with meats and cheeses.
The menu also shows some eyebrow-raisers, as in, “What’s that doing on a tavern menu?” Consider paella risotto, aged ribeye au poivre, blackened ahi, bavette steak with Tuscan salsa verde, avocado toast Nicoise, and seared scallops with pancetta and brown compound butter.
Beyond diversity, the more critical part of the menu is that “90 percent of it is made completely from scratch in the kitchen, including all the sauces,” says veteran chef Cory Lazaldi, whose last gig was at Mulvaney’s B&L in Midtown.
Lazaldi’s resume encompasses “everything from breweries to sports bars, catering to fine-dining restaurants,” he says. “I’ve never done just one thing, which I believe has made me a better chef.”
My dining buddy and I visited the Corner several times, randomly sampling from the menu. He has some industry chops, so to speak, having been a restaurateur for 30 years.
For instance, a seemingly simple appetizer of jalapeno poppers turn out crisp-tender from roasting and blistering. Their filling of velvety beer-cheese sauce, and hefty sprinkling of crispy, gluten-free garlic-Parmesan streusel, takes them beyond appetizer-class.
Flavor-saturated, fall-apart baby back ribs (a Thursday special) are dry-rubbed with a proprietary spice mix, slow-cooked overnight, finished on the grill (to order) and brushed with house-made BBQ sauce.
A singular chili is concocted from 25 ingredients (“No beans about it!” Bellizzi says). Somehow, all those elements work together in a mélange made rich with shredded chuck and smoothed with a dollop of sour cream. If it’s heat you’re after, just ask for hot sauce.
Three styles of fresh, whole (that’s right) gluten-free chicken wings are brined and fried (no flour) and arrive with ranch or gorgonzola dressing. The Buffalo and BBQ styles are fine, but better is the garlic-Parmesan touched with grates of lemon zest – another unexpected detail.
Tender wild cod in the fish ‘n’ tots (always better than fries) is dipped in a blend of rice flour-based tempura and English-style lager batter, coating the fish in a thin, non-oily, crunchy crust that holds up under repeated dips into house-made tartar sauce.
Pieces of silken ahi tuna go Italian with a rub of dried Calabrian chile and fennel, blackened and teamed on the plate with garlic aioli, olive tapenade (black and buttery Castelvetranos) and a mojo sauce of fermented Calabrian chiles, smoked sea salt and lemon. Crispy-soft fried-and-smashed baby Yukon gold potatoes are the ideal side.
Of the four salads on offer, we leaned toward the beet salad for its contrasting flavors and textures -- sweet and tangy, creamy and crunchy. Jumbo red and candy-striped Chioggia beets pick up depth of flavor from roasting in red wine vinegar and oranges. They’re tossed with peppery arugula, pistachio nuts, orange segments, and Fromage Blanc spiked with herbs and honey. Bringing it together is orange-pistachio vinaigrette pureed with white wine and Banyuls vinegars. One to go, please.
The most dramatically unexpected hit in all of this was chef Lazaldi’s skew on Moqueca, a traditional Brazilian fish stew known as the “cioppino of Brazil.” His take on the dish is a bright, deeply satisfying bowl of deliciousness.
“We took out the fish and turned it into a soup (for lunch),” Lazaldi says. “It’s totally vegan, with a coconut milk base, spices and lime juice. We put in just about every vegetable we have in the house.”
By customer request, Lazaldi will reinstate the seafood for the entrée version, packing the luscious soup with “scallops, mahi or cod, shrimp and clams, depending on what we have in the kitchen,” he says. “A lot of the so-called ‘weird’ things on the menu started as specials that customers kept coming back for. This is one of them.”
As my dining companion and I made visits to the Corner, something Lazaldi said early on kept returning to us: “There are avenues of fine-dining techniques we use, and I want everything on the plate to shine in its own light.”
Then there was that point Bellizzi made: “We cook our food, we don’t reheat our food.”
Which led us to agree that the Corner may appear to be a tavern, but it’s really much more than that. It’s a destination that delivers honest, well-handled dishes that are competitive with any place in Sacramento, and better than most.