October 26, 2012
Foodies and jazz fans converge at Sampino's on Fridays

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If you're looking for a charming place for lunch on Fridays, take a look at what's going on at Sampino's Towne Foods at 16th and F Streets. It's a bit of a hideaway, tucked away in a strip mall that could use an upgrade, but it has emerged as something of a Mecca for foodies and admirers of Old World Italian casual cuisine.

On the small patio out front, lunch-goers are treated to the sounds of two longtime local jazz musicians, Darius Babazadeh on tenor saxophone and David O'Keefe on bass.

Sampino's has been featuring the music on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for the past few months. The duo clearly has a following in the city. I ate there with a friend last Friday and didn't want to leave.

"We started that and people started flooding through the doors on Friday," said proprietor Michael Sampino. "We're meeting new people. They come to listen and they try the food. Then we see them again."

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This is a win-win for jazz aficionados and foodies, for the food at Sampino's is outstanding, featuring some of the best sandwiches in town, along with superb housemade pasta. Sampino's also has three to four soups daily. The French onion soup (can we rename it Italian onion?) I sampled just the other day was very good, as were the potato leek and the minestrone.

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Check out these pastas in the display case. They're available to eat there or take home and prepare yourself. Sampino's gives you a choice of 14 different housemade sauces, a meat and a side dish.

For what it's worth, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in this business with more passion for what he's doing than Michael Sampino and his dad, Bill.

For those takeout orders, Michael tells me, "I walk the customer through it and tell them how to cook it, and then I put my telephone number on my card," he said. "I have people call me at 7 or 8 at night and they'll tell me they forgot one of the details I told them."

That's the kind of service you might have gotten 75 years ago in a small Tuscan village. Indeed, walking into Sampino's is like going back in time and being transported to another place where old-fashioned values are still respected and food is made the right way. Bill, whose career as a butcher includes lengthy stays at Corti Brothers and David Berkeley's, still makes sausage with a hand-crank contraption that dates to 1893. Those sausages can also be found in the deli case, available to take home. It's a true family operation - Michael's wife, Gabriela, can also be found working behind the counter.

Finally, the Friday family-style dinners continue to prove popular. Nearly every dinner is booked days ahead and has a waiting list. It's a seven-course dinner for $25 to $35, depending on the menu that Friday. Wine is available on site or you can bring your own. Those dinners are seated at 6 p.m. and service begins at 6:30 p.m.

"And it's not like amuse bouche-type courses," Michael said. "It's a lot of food."

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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