September 15, 2006
Pronto's a Quick Hit

Pronto, which has succeeded Hukilau Island Grill at 16th and O in midtown Sacramento, is casual, modern, urban and spare.

But it does have live entertainment. This is provided by guests themselves, startled into shrieks of surprise when the pager on their table starts to jiggle and flash. At other restaurants, such pagers commonly are handed diners when they sign up at the hostess stand for a table. Guests clutch them and aren't likely to forget their presence as they hang around waiting for a table to become available. At Pronto, however, patrons are given a pager when they place their order at the front counter, and still have it with them as they take their seats. As they sip their wine and chat they're apt to forget about it altogether until it suddenly lights up, flashes and vibrates. This is the signal for guests to proceed to the pick-up counter to retrieve their meal, and where they are apt to encounter a giggling counterman who just has been amused by the show. "I've been telling them they need to turn those things down," said one last night.

I don't know that that's necessary. While surprising, the electronic gadgets aren't irritating. And there is an appealing tradeoff: Without servers, Pronto is able to offer guests some fairly high-value food. Aside from a whole chicken to go ($11.95), the most expensive item in the place is the bacon-wrapped meatloaf ($9.25).

We passed on that, but found virtually everything we did order so generous in portion it was almost too much to eat. Mindful that patrons just might discover that they've ordered more than they consume, Pronto provides stacks of clamshell boxes and handled paper bags at the pick-up counter. These we used for the leftover half of a prosciutto panini with sauteed spinach, roasted red peppers and pesto aioli on excellent "artisan Vienna bread" ($6.75), and what was left of the "Palermo beef ragu," a homey and rich stew over a bowlful of polenta ($7.25). We polished off the "grilled bread salad," a wholesome if mild version of the classic Italian tomato salad panzanella ($7.25 for the large, $4.50 for the small, which really is big enough to share or to order as an entree), and the polenta fries, sticks of fried cornmeal to be dipped in a sweet, spicy and garlicky "balsamic ketchup" ($4.25). The fries were tasty, but could be the only overpriced thing in the place.

Pronto's motto is "Real Italian Real Fast." Aside from a couple of aberrations like the Buffalo-chicken salad and the grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich, most of the menu is a light, modern interpretation of Italian cookery. And the food does come out fairly fast. Without servers, guests pretty much are on their own, though counter personnel, manager and busboy last night were friendly and eager to guide.

Pronto wasn't full last night, but it was doing a brisk take-out business, indicating that the neighborhood's increasing number of residents already has found the place to their liking.

Pronto, 1501 16th St., opens at 11 a.m. weekdays, noon weekends; (916) 444-5850. A downloadable menu is at the cafe's Web site.

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