Growing up, I had a friend with dark hair and espresso-colored eyes whose skin turned a deep shade of copper in the sun. Her brother was flame-haired, fair-skinned and freckled. (Yes, I’m positive he wasn’t adopted.) While they both shared the same roots of an Irish father and a Native American mother, their characteristics couldn’t have been more different.
Much is the same with Italian and Italian-American food.
Italian exchange students I’ve known through the years have displayed a range of visceral reactions to this distant cousin to their homeland’s cuisine. While the sauce and meat are the stars of an Italian meal made in the U.S., the pasta itself is the diva in Italy, where sauce is used simply and sparingly. Meat on pasta (think chicken Parmesan) is not easily found, unless you’re in a restaurant that caters to American tourists. In fact, a man named Alfredo created fettuccine Alfredo, to appease this very clientele. His version was made without the heavy cream. That was added by us.
However, Italian-American food should not be overlooked. It has the potential to be fresh, exciting and elegant with flavors all its own. Such is the case with Anchorage’s favorite little Italian joint, Sorrento’s.
I don’t have to tell anyone familiar with Anchorage not to judge a restaurant by its exterior. Nestled on a corner, just off the New Seward Highway on Fireweed, Sorrento’s looks more like a dive bar than anything else. Even when you walk in the door, the place is nothing special to look at. Enter through the front and you’ll run into the teeny-tiny bar area, where one could wait for a date, but I wouldn’t suggest hanging out for aperitivo.
We visited on a Wednesday evening, and were quickly seated in a high-backed booth along the wall. The colors of the Italian flag were everywhere, from the red table clothes and brick arches, to the green chairs and ceiling beams. White cloth napkins that usually give an air of sophistication were countered by the white paper placemats at each seat. It was the mullet of table settings.
The dining room was lit with a mixture of incandescent and LED lights, so that it was dim, but not dark. There were several tables occupied by singles, others with large families and plenty empty.
Our server greeted us promptly and took our order for a beer ($4.50), a glass of house wine ($5), and the trio appetizer sampler ($13.50). When she returned to deliver our drinks, we had decided on the chicken florentina ($21.45) and the meat calzone ($17.45). Each came with the soup of the day (minestrone) or salad; I opted for soup and my partner chose the salad.
The appetizer arrived shortly thereafter. True to its name, the plate featured three items: mozzarella sticks, zucchini fritti and calamari frittura, served with sides of ranch and marinara. Each bite was fried to perfection with a crunchy breading and tender inside. The calamari was fresh, not at all fishy or chewy. Most surprising to me, the fried zucchini had a crisp outside and soft center, a pleasant change from the norm.
The salad was composed of crisp greens, served with a slice of cheese, a couple olives, a grape tomato and fresh cracked pepper. The soup had all the tenets you’d expect and though it was seasoned perfectly, it too was nothing profound. The cup it came in probably felt out of place next to the modern plateware our other food sat upon.
The main course was served with a basket of garlic bread that fell into the same category of the soup and salad, nothing spectacular but serving its purpose as a great vessel to sop up extra sauce.
My pasta was coated in a delightful cream sauce with tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms and chicken. The sauce, while full of cream and butter, wasn’t greasy or heavy. However, I felt that the plate yearned for something more. One more layer of flavor to brighten it up. The noodles were slightly overdone, as if pulled off the stove a minute too late.
The calzone was filled with Canadian bacon, pepperoni, beef sausage, Parmesan and mozzarella. Served with a side of pizza sauce, it was tasty as well, yet I took note of the food envy in my partner’s eyes.
All through the meal we were attended not only by our server, I noticed each set of eyes from the wait staff make sure our glasses were full and our empty plates cleared. We skipped dessert and opted to finish our dinner with a glass of wine once we got home, taking a box of leftover pasta with us.
We returned early on Saturday night to grab a bite before a show. Immediately we were shown to a booth on the opposite side of the restaurant. I realized the dining room was not as big as I thought, the back mirrored wall proving quite effective.
Shortly after we were seated, a tow-headed server took our drink order for a glass of their featured white wine ($5), a crisp, sweet moscato, and a half pitcher of beer ($8). Pro tip: If you plan on having two beers, order the half pitcher and you’ll save a buck. Plus, the little pitcher is adorable.
This time we skipped the appetizer. I inquired whether or not they had any specials and was told that Sorrento’s hasn’t had a special in 40 years. Everything is our special, she said. On asking if she could then make a recommendation, she helped me come to the decision to have the fettuccine di mare ($24.95) with the arrabbiata sauce. Tomato sauce with fish? Ok, I thought. My partner decided to pair his beer with a pizza, topped with sausage and feta. Also good to note, the server asked if he preferred crumbled or sliced sausage since they have both. He chose crumbled.
Again, we were attended by each member of the staff, their watchful eyes making sure we had what we needed as the restaurant filled to capacity before we got our meals. The atmosphere was much different than our weeknight visit where quiet conversations mixed with soft music. This time the air was filled with laughter and discussions between friends and families. It was loud, but it was boisterous noise filled with life and love.
When my plate was set in front of me, my first thought was that I had someone else’s dinner. The sauce was a creamy tomato sauce, rather than the arrabbiatta sauce I was expecting. It smelled delicious, but it was far from the sauce by the same name I know so well.
Hidden inside the spicy cream sauce were the true gems of this dish: scallops, halibut and shrimp. The mare, meaning "sea" in Italian, of this plate was outstanding. Flaky and fresh, the halibut sung. Not to be outdone the shrimp were little pops of flavor all their own. The scallops were buttery little rounds that my partner kept reaching across the table to steal from my plate. (Food envy yet again.)
His pizza was good. The sauce was flavorful, the feta and the sausage went well together, unlike a few of his more adventurous topping combinations.
I stopped myself to save room for dessert; tiramisu ($6.95) which I wish I could say was made in-house. However, it was the airy coffee-flavored delicacy I had hoped for, nicely plated with espresso powder and a chocolate streak.
We left as we did before—sated and carrying leftovers.
I realize now that only when I was forced to get past what I thought the arrabbiata sauce should have been, what I’ve always known it to be, could I appreciate it for what it was. The same should go for Italian-American food. Once you can differentiate the similar, yet diverse food cultures, you can get to the root of both: a passion for food and the pride that comes with it.
Published in the Anchorage Press on November 5, 2015.
610 E. Fireweed Lane
Monday - Thursday : 3:30- 9:30 p.m.
Friday: 3:30- 10:30 p.m.
Saturday: 2:00- 10:30 p.m.
Sunday: 2:00- 9:30 p.m.
Read all of Jessica's writing on Muck Rack