June 4, 2007
Prepare to Brake: Food Ahead

Pine Grove is a wide spot along Highway 88 about eight miles east of Jackson in Amador County. For anyone heading to the High Sierra to ski at Kirkwood, fish at Silver Lake or hike about Carson Pass, Pine Grove is well placed for grabbing a bite, regardless of whether you are heading uphill or down. We spent much of the weekend camped at Pine Grove. We weren't doing any cooking, so we wandered into the settlement to bring outselves up to date on some local culinary landmarks.

The hit was Giant 88 Burgers, a tiny oldtime diner on the north side of the highway smack dab in the middle of the hamlet. Hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, shakes, malts and a root-beer float is about all they do at Giant 88 Burgers, and they do each well. The burger is a simple thing, a thick round of fresh meat fried patiently on the Imperial griddle, then stuck into an ordinary bun with a slice of fresh sweet onion, tomato, lettuce, mustard and mayo. It's big, juicy and honest, the perfect combo of protein and carbohydrates for reviving the emergy after a few hours of sealing a cabin deck. The fries are pretty standard, and badly needed salt and ketchup, but both staff and clientele tend to be relaxed and joshing.

Henry's is a donut shop on the other side of the highway and just a bit to the east. They serve Java City coffee and offer the usual array of fried dough products. The old-fashioned, usually my favorite style, was a letdown, lacking interest, while the glazed, a genre I'm customarily not crazy about, was the best I've had. Both were wonderfully fresh, the lady behind the counter was solicitous, and the oldtimers who looked and sounded as if they gather there virtually every morning were spinning yarns that made you want to hang around and eavesdrop instead of getting back to that deck.

Giannini's, a hulking two-story Italian roadhouse next to Giant 88 Burgers, mystifies me. The Giannini family has been running the restaurant for 30 years now, but it just never has generated the buzz of Amador County's other Italian restaurants, though readers of a Jackson newspaper not long ago declared it the best of the lot. Still, you drive up and you often can't tell if it's open or closed. I was sure the neon sign was lit as I parked out front Saturday night. But it apparently was switched off between the time I pulled on the handbrake and the time I pulled open the restaurant's door. And it was only 9 p.m. There were still several guests inside, and we were welcomed warmly even though they seemed about ready to close.

Partitioned into a cocktail lounge with an old mahogany bar and a pressed-tin ceiling, and three spacious dining rooms, Giannini's is a throwback to the 1940s. Its walls look like logs, its roomy booths are upholstered with diamond-tucked red leatherette material, and its tables are covered with sheets of sturdy green fabric. Lighting is low, music a whisper.

One wall is given over to historic photos of the Giannini family, which has been in the restaurant business for 70 years. Several of them include that grand gentleman of Muscle Beach, Jack LaLanne. He's an old family friend who at 92 still pops in periodically, as recently as last week, said the hostess. He ordered fish, she said. I wish I'd known that before rather than after our meal.

Instead, I'd ordered one of the night's specials, polenta with Italian sausage. Polenta is a signature item at Giannini's, and as usual it was warm, flavorful and comforting, but the sausage was weird, with an unappetizing smell and a coarse, listless flavor. Another entree, gnocchi with a creamy pesto sauce, was fresher and better balanced. While the sausage was a letdown, I'd like to go back. I like the feel of the place, its history and its cordial staff. But next time I'll order one of those fish dishes - Jack LaLanne never steered me wrong - or maybe the pasta carbonara or clam linguini or chicken liver saute or eggplant parmigiana. The thought alone tempts me to get right back in the car and return to Pine Grove.

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