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Have you ever been to Bonito, Italy? Many of you probably haven't. No need to worry though, for a taste of Bonito can be found right here in southwest Bakersfield at Sorella Ristorante Italiano.
Since Sorella's inception in 1993, this fine establishment -- created by owner Annunziata (Nancy) Cristallo, and her two daughters, Laurel Swift-Floyd and Lilian Larson -- has been whetting the appetites of Bakersfield residents.
After spending 45 minutes with Nancy in an engaging conversation, us Food Dudes learned much about her deep roots. As one of six children, she immigrated with her parents to Boston, and shortly after moved to Visalia, Calif., to setup shop and pursue the American dream.
The original Rosa's Italian Restaurant in Visalia soon branched out to Rosa's in northeast Bakersfield, Sorella in the southwest, and Rosa's at Pismo Beach. Many of the same family recipes are used daily; however, Sorella has had to adapt to the desires of its clientele. Numerous items are handmade like the dough, meat filling and pasta.
With a great demand for an Italian restaurant in the southwest, Nancy recognized this opportunity and opened new doors. With offerings of various pastas and meats, a tranquil yet delightful ambiance, and the musical flavors of Frank Sinatra, we are thankful Nancy poured in all of her live savings to achieve her dream.
Derek: We started our meal off with warm French bread and Sorella's surprising puttanesca sauce. It's a green sauce with bell peppers as a key ingredient, and seasonings that produce a warm, fiery sensation comparable to the spicy personality of most Italians. Ask your waitress for the back story -- the dish is named for a "wicked woman of the night."
David:The matriarch, Nancy, then brought us two more appetizers: the bruschetta pizza and sauteed mushrooms. If you like spicy, you have to try the mushrooms -- just enough spice and with parmesan cheese bordering the plate.
Vin: For the bruschetta, instead of using sliced French baguette, pizza dough is used to make a thin crust. The crust actually gives the bruschetta more flavor by adding a crusty texture.
Rick K.: My personal favorite -- the antipasto salad. With plenty of salami, mozzarella slices, black olives, crisp greens and a tasty house dressing, it never disappoints.
Vin: Next, Rick H. and I tried the minestrone soup. As soon as you taste the soup, you can pretty much tell it's made fresh daily. This vegetarian soup is loaded with vegetables cooked to the exact amount of soft-but-not-yet-soggy texture. The classic combination of tangy tomato, diced potato, pasta and beans is perfect.
Rick K.: Although I'd been to their family restaurants (Rosa's, Joseph's Italian Restaurant) a number of times through the years, it never hurts to consider recommendations from their experienced and friendly staff. And, our waitress Debbie was right.
Although I don't typically go for steak when dining Italian, I stepped out and ordered the rib-eye, medium rare. The generous and well-trimmed cut came out of the kitchen just right, with a flavorful garlic seasoning that made any extra sauce unnecessary.
I have to say I'm a big fan of a nice pesto sauce, particularly on top of spinach ravioli. Debbie mentioned that I might enjoy mixing up their alfredo and pesto. Another splendid idea! Slightly sweet and crunchy, that little combo will be on my short list every time!
Rick H.:As a vivacious seafood lover, I, of course, had to try the tutto mare. And I am elated that I did, for it consists of a plethora of delicacies of the sea: calamari, mussels, shrimp, clams, cod and scallops all slowly and tastefully simmered in fresh basil, garlic, secret spices and olive oil over a fresh bed of linguini. Each item is cooked to perfection: the calamari rings, a bit sweet and not too chewy or soft; the mussels, tender and tasty; the shrimp, plump and garlicky; the clams, chewy and flavorful; the cod, mild to accent the more powerful natural tangs of the other items; and the scallops, tender with not too much chewiness and a flavor that makes them melt in your mouth. If you have never tried tutto mare, I implore you to try Sorella's. It's fresh, filling and fantastico!
Vin: For my main entree, I went with the linguini with clams and white wine sauce -- a staple in Italian cuisine. The linguini, cooked al dente, is soft enough to eat but still has a good bit of chewy texture. The delicious sauce is made using baby clams sauteed in fresh garlic, basil, olive oil and white wine. The flavor is great, not too salty or too watery. As an added bonus, the clams come without the shell; therefore, making it mess-friendly. For all the clam lovers out there, this dish will definitely please.
Derek: As long as I can remember, I've never been one to crave seafood, but I've always loved shrimp. What's that you say -- shrimp is seafood? I won't hear of it. Shrimp is a food in its own class, especially when fresh, prepared well and in jumbo form. With my passion for prawns, it's no surprise that the shrimp scampi caught my eye. I ordered it, and instead of the pasta, I opted for gnocchi, which a friend suggested is a must. The scampi arrived with a bevy of beautifully cooked sauteed shrimp (as my Italian mother-in-law would say, "I want my guests to see a lot of shrimp.") atop a layer of potato gnocchi, all swimming in a sun-colored sauce with vibrant green onions. The shrimp were plump, and upon first bite gave way with a pop, filling the palate with the garlic butter sauce they'd absorbed. The sauce coated the tender gnocchi well. In combination, the shrimp, sauce, and gnocchi were a worthy representation of Italian comfort food.
David: I consider Italian one of my "comfort" foods. So when picking out my entree, I went for a lot of comfort -- a house special, the Italian trio. As the name would suggest, the Italian trio is three dishes in one: lasagna, fettucini alfredo and chicken parmigiana. This is a lot of food and can easily be split between a couple. Nancy explained that these recipes are handed down through generations, and it shows. There are no fancy variations of the Italian classics, just extremely good traditional cuisine.
Rick K. and David: No one could blame us if we stopped with the entree, but Nancy would have none of that. We'll admit that we asked for a box to take home leftovers because we didn't want to miss dessert. The beauty of this gig is that we don't have to order just one. We weren't leaving until we sampled the bananas foster, spumoni (which you can't leave an Italian restaurant without trying), and Nancy's homemade tiramisu.
Derek and Vin:Bananas foster -- one word that describes the mountain of melted magic: bliss. It is loaded with four large scoops of soft vanilla ice cream, topped with banana pieces that are cooked in banana liqueur, cinnamon, butter, brown sugar and dark rum. The alcohol flavor is minimal since the liqueur and rum are greatly reduced during the cooking process. The combination of cold ice cream and warm cooked banana pieces is a genius idea. This was the dessert that grabbed everyone's attention and had the five of us eating out of the same dessert dish. It's not on the menu, but if you ask nicely, how can Chef Laurel say no?
Rick H.: I sampled all three fine desserts, but clearly my favorite was the tiramisu. Rich with cocoa, mascarpone cheese, rum, espresso and lady fingers, this is a dessert that I will return for many more times. As a non-coffee drinker, the espresso was just enough to accent the rest of the fine mixture. Bellisimo!
David: You always want to have that perfect, go-to place for a romantic evening where you will have friendly service, a good ambiance and great food. Sorella is one of those places in Bakersfield. Even though on this occasion I was with four other Dudes, I could see that the other patrons were feeling it. The atmosphere is cozy and every so often, waiter Mark Downing will get on the microphone and belt out some Sinatra or an Italian classic.
Rick H.: Sorella has served southwest Bakersfield diners for 20 years, and now does minimal marketing as Nancy has built-up a clientele whom she proclaims is "family." Thankfully, for us Food Dudes, who have supped here before and will return, we got a little taste of Bonito and a greater respect for a wonderful family achieving the American dream. We hope you will, too.