Capelini Al Naturale with white wine is a popular dish at Sorella Ristorante Italiano.

Whether you order take out, dress up for a nice dinner or opt for a casual lunch, Sorella Ristorante Italiano promises to give its customers the finest family dining experience.

"I enjoy what I do. I take pride in my food. I'm back there pretty much overlooking everything," said owner Nancy Cristallo.

Her family came to the United States from Southern Italy in the late 1950s because her dad wanted a better life for his five daughters and son. They settled on the East Coast, until a visit to an uncle's home in sunny California changed their minds and they moved.

Settling in Visalia, one of the sisters opened Rosa's Italian Restaurant, which led to the openings of Rosa's locations in east Bakersfield and Pismo Beach and two other Bakersfield eateries -- Joseph's downtown and eventually Sorella in the southwest.

"If one of us thrives, we're happy for each other, and that brings tears to me. We all came here together on a boat for a better life," she said.

Cristallo opened Sorella in 1993 with her two daughters, Lillian Swift and Laurel Floyed. They felt it was appropriate to name the restaurant something fresh and new, yet meaningful, so they called it Sorella, which means sisters in Italian. Since Cristallo was the baby sister and the last one to open a restaurant, she felt the name was a perfect fit.

"I tried to push them away from it because it consumes your life. I live and breathe this place -- I'm married to this place," Cristallo said. "I wanted my daughters to move away from the business, but they couldn't because it's in their blood."

Sorella uses the same traditional recipes that Cristallo has had since she was 13 years old, but adds specials to spice up the menu. The entrees range from $12.95 to $25.95. Some of those Italian favorites include spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, chicken marsala, cioppino, fettuccini alfredo and pizzas and calzones cooked on a rock oven.

However, Sorella's three most-ordered dishes are the 18-ounce New York steak ($19.95 al a carte, $25.95 for meal), homemade bite-size beef ravioli ($15.95) and baked halibut on a bed of angel hair pasta and vegetables ($23.95).

Sorella offers a little of everything, even a romantic ambiance (nothing like dim lighting and Andrea Bocelli to set the mood!), which has been the catalyst for many engagements.

"I had a couple in there and it was closing time and my bus boy went over to ask if they needed anything and he came back with a red face," Cristallo said about the infamous Table 22, tucked in a corner near the kitchen and nicknamed the "makeout booth."

Customers also enjoy that they can purchase Sorella's delicious sauces by the quart, especially the bolognese meat sauce. While it can be stressful at times, Sorella caters weddings and office parties.

"There is nothing I'd rather do. I do the best to please our customers. I feel blessed and lucky with this economy I still have a job and I still have customers coming in," Cristallo said.

Large portions, reasonable prices and friendly servers are what keeps people coming back for more. Sorella offers an all-you-can-eat weekday lunch buffet where customers can eat a quick, yet gourmet meal for less than $10.

There are four to five rotating entrees to choose from that come with a small salad. If you don't want the buffet, the lunch menu offers sandwiches like meatball, pastrami or eggplant.

Lunchtime meals are served with bread and butter, and a salad or cup of soup can be added for a couple of dollars.

At dinner, each entree includes the choice of soup or salad. A couple can split a pizza or share an entree for $12, while children can eat starting at $7.95.

Cristallo likes to cook with tomatoes, garlic and fresh basil (as called for in the recipe for Capelini Al Naturale) because that's what she grew up preparing.

"When I go in my kitchen in the morning and smell the fresh basil, that smell brings me right back to the kitchen when I was little with my mom," Cristallo said.

Desserts are another speciality, especially Cristallo's recipe for tiramisu, which includes Grand Marnier to give a zest of orange flavor. The newest creation, lemon mascarpone cake, will satisfy your sweet tooth.

She still loves to eat at her restaurant and so do her longtime employees, who eat there even on their days off.

Cristallo's response?

"I can't stop them from eating."

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