Five local restaurateurs reveal the dishes they wouldn’t dare take off the menu.
Come on, admit it! When you go out to eat, more often than not, you head to a favorite restaurant and order that favorite item you’ve enjoyed so many times before. We’re all creatures of habit. Once we find something we love, we tend to stick with it.
But what would you do if, one day, that beloved item were no longer on the menu? Complain? Whine? Insist on ordering it anyway?
Restaurateurs who’ve dared to remove some longtime favorites have, regrettably, faced all these responses (and probably a few others not appropriate for a family publication). As a result, most approach the decision to remove dishes with extreme caution.
We tiptoed into that touchy territory with five local restaurateurs to ask, “What dishes would you never take off your menu, and why?” Here’s what they said.
Moody’s Bistro Bar & Beats
Moody’s has been rocking the scene in Downtown Truckee for 20 years. It’s located in the beautiful, historic Truckee Hotel, which dates back to 1873. Don’t let that fool you. There’s nothing stuffy or antiquated about this place. Moody’s is as happening a spot as you’ll find — with a Zagat-rated menu, a focus on farm-to-table, locally sourced ingredients, and a full bar featuring craft cocktails. Oh, yes, and live music Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
JJ Morgan is co-founder, co-owner, and managing partner of Moody’s. He keeps the business running smoothly and hires the best local and touring bands around. Longtime executive chef William Burns gets credit for the culinary magic.
So which of Burns’ mouthwatering creations would Morgan never cut from the menu?
“Moody’s burger,” Morgan immediately replies. “Chef worked with Niman Ranch to develop the perfect blend of beef that’s then ground in house, cooked to order, and served on a brioche bun. It’s very popular. People would throw a fit if I took it off the menu.”
His next choice is chef Burns’ house-smoked pastrami sandwich, served with Flemish cabbage, arugula, Swiss cheese, and remoulade sauce on rye. The meat is cured, by the chef, using his special, closely guarded, secret recipe.
“People have told me a million times that it’s the best pastrami they’ve ever tasted,” Morgan says.
His final choice is house-smoked Rancho Llano Seco pork chops with bourbon peach jam, served with crispy polenta, bacon-braised Swiss chard, and Jimmy Nardello chiles. Why? Because it’s his personal favorite, Morgan says. Good enough reason.
The Grill at Quail Corners
Looking for a place to bump into local business and community leaders? Head on over to The Grill at Quail Corners in Reno. Over the past 23 years, the restaurant has built a large and loyal following among not only the local who’s who, but also people of all walks of life. And owners Sam and Diane Francovich probably know each and every one of their names.
Kind of sounds like the theme song from Cheers, doesn’t it? Sam Francovich laughs at the reference.
“I think we’re a lot like Cheers in the sense that people feel really comfortable coming in,” Francovich says. “Some stop in every day just to check in. And funnily enough, our names are Sam and Diane [like the main characters in the show].”
For his sacrosanct menu items, Francovich starts with his grilled mozzarella appetizer. The 4-by-4-by-½-inch mozzarella slice is dredged in olive oil, coated with panko crumbs, then fried to a crisp. It’s finished with white wine, sundried tomatoes, and scallions, and served with warm bread.
“It’s been on our menu since we opened,” Francovich says, “and it’s one of our best sellers. It’s not going anywhere.”
Next offering? Sole piccata, which Francovich says is The Grill’s No. 1 seller. Petrale sole is dredged in olive oil, coated with panko crumbs, and crisped on a flat grill. It’s drizzled with a piccata sauce of butter, white wine, garlic, a touch of heavy cream, and fresh lemon juice, then finished with some capers.
End the meal with Diane’s popular homemade bread pudding and you’re golden!
The Slanted Porch
This charming, rural restaurant is housed in a renovated 1908 home in Fallon. It’s a longstanding favorite with locals, as well as those based at nearby Fallon Naval Air Station. It’s also a popular lunchtime getaway for its urban neighbors from the Reno-Carson area.
Steve Hernandez calls himself a farmer/restaurateur/chef, and, indeed, he fills all those roles. He owns and manages the restaurant, works the kitchen line every day, and offers a farm-to-table menu of the most literal and proximate kind.
In a hoop house adjacent to the restaurant, he raises herbs and vegetables that are plated within hours of being picked. He also raises some of his own beef and lamb, which are served at the restaurant. And what he doesn’t raise he sources from local farmers.
Hernandez hesitates before explaining that the dishes he would never remove actually aren’t on the official menu, he explains. Instead, they’re the regular weekly specials that all the locals know about.
“We do our local lamb burger on Thursdays,” Hernandez says. “We have quite a following for that.”
That’s truly an understatement. According to Hernandez, in addition to demand from the resident locals, it’s not uncommon to get pre-orders from those based at Fallon Naval Air Station for up to 80 burgers at a time.
The restaurant’s also well-known for another non-menu item: crispy shrimp tacos, a regular Friday special. The crazy story behind that creation — about a youthful Hernandez traveling thousands of miles with his brother sampling at least that many tacos — may be better than the taco itself, Hernandez says with a laugh. Suffice it to say, these tacos contain the best of the best from their “research,” he adds.
Johnny’s Ristorante Italiano
At 56, Johnny’s reigns as one of the oldest restaurants in the area. It’s also one of the most popular, consistently garnering top votes in annual consumer surveys.
In 1966, Johnny and Mary Cassinari opened a small downtown restaurant serving sub sandwiches and pizza. In time, the menu expanded — and the transition from humble sub shop to elegant dining establishment began.
In 1972, they moved to the present location on Fourth Street. It was well off the beaten track — still is — but that never stopped people from seeking out this mecca of delicious Italian food.
Louis Cassinari is the second-generation proprietor, following in his parents’ footsteps. In speaking with Louis, it’s obvious that he cherishes the family traditions he was entrusted with from an early age. No surprise, therefore, that his selections of dishes reflect those family connections.
His first choice is the petrale sole, a recipe created by his parents. The delicate white fish is encrusted with Parmesan cheese and served atop a lemon butter cream sauce. It’s accompanied by angel hair pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil. It’s very popular, Louis says, and is one of Johnny’s signature dishes.
His next selection, penne Maria, was created by Louis for his mom. It’s a baked dish made with penne pasta, chicken, prosciutto, peas, cream, Parmesan cheese, and a little tomato sauce, topped with mozzarella.
Steak Johnny, created by his dad, has been on the menu for more than 40 years. It features a New York steak, aged 28 days, smothered in mushrooms, leeks, a little red wine, and marinara sauce, then topped with Parmesan and mozzarella.
“Anything named for my parents will never come off the menu,” Louis adds with a smile.
Local Food Group
It’s fitting to end with Mark Estee, one of the most prolific, recognized, awarded, and celebrated chefs/restaurateurs in our community and beyond. He’s also the CEO of Local Food Group, the umbrella company for his many culinary businesses.
Estee’s culinary career spans over 27 years, during which he has founded and owned literally dozens of restaurants.
For our purposes, we asked him to focus on his current restaurants, which number seven: Liberty Food & Wine Exchange and Pizzeria Lupo in Reno, Overland Restaurant & Pub in Gardnerville, Cucina Lupo in Carson City, and Great Basin Brewing Co., with three locations in Reno, Carson City, and Sparks.
Estee selected three dishes that he started with at least 10 years ago, and he says they have followed him ever since and worked their way into all of his restaurants.
“Our famous sea salt and caramel budino,” he begins. “It’s often imitated but never duplicated. It seems to win best dessert every year in all the Reno publications.”
He describes it at a simple pudding, first served in a Mason jar in 2010 at Campo, which he originally opened in Downtown Reno. It’s still offered in all of his restaurants, and, yes, it’s still served in the iconic Mason jar.
Next, he cheats a bit by naming all the beer-battered items served at all three Great Basin locations and Overland. These include fish and chips, drunken jalapeños, and willy dillys (beer-battered pickles).
“We use the Great Basin beer and our proprietary spices and method,” Estee says. “Our customers would go ballistic if we took them off the menu!”
Lastly, he points to the kale salad that’s always served at Liberty and cycles through the other restaurants at different times. It has thinly sliced dino kale, crispy grana padano cheese, lemon garlic vinaigrette, and a poached egg.
“I’d love to change it, add a few more things,” Estee says, “but if I did, people would literally call me and cry.”
Reno writer Barbara Twitchell says that if she decides to break away from her usual favorites, she now has some pretty good ideas of what else she might order when she goes to any of these restaurants. Thanks, guys!
Cucino Lupo Cucinalupo.com
Great Basin Brewing Co. Greatbasinbrewingco.com
Johnny’s Ristorante Italiano Johnnysristorante.com
Liberty Food & Wine Exchange Libertyfoodandwine.com
Overland Restaurant & Pub Overland-restaurant.com
Pizzeria Lupo Pizzerialupo.com
The Grill at Quail Corners Grillatqc.com
The Slanted Porch Slantedporch.com