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When introducing married business partners, we tend to say “husband-and-wife team” but when it comes to the story of sommelier Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou and chef Deneb Williams, “wife-and-husband” seems more fitting. After all, in Williams’s words, their restaurant “is about her; [he] wanted to build a restaurant that was as beautiful as she is.” Furthermore, given that she recently — and impressively — became one of only three advanced sommeliers in Sacramento, highlighting ER, as she’s affectionately called, only seems right.
So where’s the meet-cute? Rather than pry into the romantic inner-workings of how Williams and Mandalou themselves met, we’ll bask in the serendipity of how they met their restaurant. Long-time residents of East Sacramento, the two had always talked about how the space, formerly inhabited by Rust Florist, would make for an incredible restaurant. It turns out it only took ten years of patience and a whole lot of pluck, and lo and behold, the space became theirs in 2016. In the movie version of this storyline, this is where we would be treated to a Motown-soundtracked montage of the couple happily wiping sweat off their brows as they set to off to build their dream restaurant, but a few plot twists and new characters had to be introduced to keep things interesting.
Typically, romantic comedies end with the camera panning out on the now happy couple laughing or talking while the credits roll, but we’re often left wondering Yes, but what happened next? In real life, what happened after the two found their space is where the real work began — just like in love, incidentally. The duo became a trio, bringing on Executive Chef, Joseph Pruner, and the three opened Uptown Pizza Kitchen and Woodlake Tavern. Williams confesses,
“I didn’t set out to open three restaurants in a year and a half, but it was either all or nothing, and I chose all.”
Now that’s script-writing gold.
Now that it’s open, what can diners expect visiting Allora? Billed as a “Modern Italian Seafood and Wine Bar,” you can expect just that and a bit more. For example, if seafood isn’t your bag (really? Not even if it’s sourced from Sunh Fish?) the menu offers options such as the bone-in ribeye, veal sweetbreads, and Parmesan risotto. Likewise, when it comes to the “wine bar” portion of the name, there really is such luxury and trust in having ER on the floor. Her knowledge would likely dwarf even the most seasoned palettes, but her approachability speaks to that “modern” in there too. Stuffy and inaccessible, Allora ain’t. No need to feel intimidated by the wine list — even if it is mostly from Italy and Greece. Miss Mandalou has built the wine list around familiar varietals, but not from recognizable places. She doesn’t “give people the chance to not be adventurous.” But fear not. On our visit, we were afforded the chance to see the before-service huddle of servers as they got the rundown on the night’s wine offerings. Pencils scrawled across notepads as they got the scoop on the evening’s wine flight, helping to arm guests with information about the history of the region, climate, grape, time spent on the skins, and acidity. These folks know their stuff. And they want you to be open to trying something new, which is why they’re more than happy to offer tastes as you figure it out.
Speaking of tastes, let’s get to the “buon appetito,” shall we?
When we asked Chef Williams to send out dishes he felt excited about, he gushed, “I’m excited about everything; I’ve been dreaming about this food for twenty years.” He continued, dreamily referencing the saying that, “Americans eat; Italians dine,” which is why Allora allows for three-hour table turns in hopes that people will “slow down and relax” to enjoy the smaller portion sizes that are designed to be spaced over four to five courses. When asked which Italian region Allora specializes in, Williams answered, “We don’t like to limit ourselves to just one region.” That would explain why you’ll find both, say, spaetzle from northern Italy and Roman style gnocchi made with polenta on the menu. For Williams, “food always starts with the vegetables.” We can likely thank his mom, Sally Jeanne for that. She tends to the back patio’s garden wall nightly where she grows some lettuces, edible flowers, and herbs for the menu. Wall to table. Beat that.
As a nod to Williams’s childhood on the Washington state coast, there are always three species of oysters available daily. Spoon on some housemade mignonette and hot sauce and say “Saluti!”
The Insalate de Mare is a seafood lover’s dream. The vegetable accompaniments change seasonally, but they complement the calamari, mussels, Dungeness crab, and shrimp. On our visit, we enjoyed heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, and basil coulis.
In an Italian take on beef tartare, chefs Williams and Pruner freshly prepare the beef daily, folding in capers and tartufata (truffles and olives) and topping the dish with an olive-oil-poached egg, Maldon sea salt, and greens from the living wall.
Many of us may have seen “fresh-made pasta” on a menu and perhaps wondered Is it really that much better? Order this and become a convert. Warning: you may be ruined. An egg yolk delicately suspends inside this raviolo, which is topped with housemade pancetta, lobster, basil oil, fried leeks, black Mediterranean sea salt, and as an homage to Rust Florist, edible flowers. Get that camera ready when you break this bad boy open.
The dishes here are all plated with attention to detail, and with stunner colors, but this one is a real showstopper. Williams reminded us of Italy’s proximity to North Africa when explaining the story behind the Moroccan and Libyan influences in the big-eye tuna dish. Going for a marriage between Greek salad and North African flavors, you can find the Mediterranean tuna nestled atop a Harissa-spiced golden tomato puree, compressed cucumbers, Castelvetrano olives and chickpeas. Eye candy, and plenty easy on the taste buds too.
Lastly, we had a bomb dropped on us. A Peach Bomb. Even if you’re not a white chocolate fan, give this dessert a try. The lightness of the dish belies the often maligned sweetness of white chocolate. Acidity from the molten peach center creates a balance of tart and sweet that can only be made better by adding toasted almonds, almond cake, and dehydrated peach skins ground on top. We had a meet-cute all our very own.
Everything from the sleek decor and dishware to the branding is downright transportative, so while this rom com may be in Italian, it has English subtitles that ought to have you going back for a repeat showing.
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