Sometimes it's the simple, everyday things, done exquisitely well, that are the most impressive. Take meatballs, for instance.
Not just any meatballs. I'm talking about the meatballs at Saucy, the down-home Italian restaurant you've been looking for.
It's right in the middle of downtown Ukiah. There, executive chef Mitch Mount makes what he calls Nana's Meatballs ($8 ****). If only Nana made them this good.
Three meatballs, each the size of a lemon, are made with a mixture of ground beef and pork. Most meatballs, especially ones that combine two or more meats, are dense and even rubbery from being overworked, so the fine structure of the fresh-ground meats is lost. Not these beauties. They are tender, light, almost airy, and juicy with the meat's own juices.
Better yet, they are drowned in chef Mount's house-made marinara sauce, a sauce so rich and tomato-y that I would have bet it was made by someone's Italian grandmother who started her pot bubbling at 5 o'clock in the morning so the sauce could be ready by 9 o'clock in the evening.
Saucy also gives you some attitude with your food and drink. The few Spartan tables in the main room have a total of just 14 hard metal chairs, with seven more metal stools at the counter, more seats up a flight of steps, and a few seats outside. Be a little pushy; I waited quietly for 20 minutes before being asked if I wanted water or anything else to drink.
There are 15 beers and ales on tap, ranging from light brews like Trumer Pils to black and heavy Old Rasputin Stout. Pints are $4.75, but cost a buck less during happy hours from 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Forrest Tancer and James Wasson are the wine program directors, or as owner Cynthia Ariosta calls them, "the resident wine geeks." Tancer and Wasson know what's delicious and well-priced, offering six wines on tap, seven by the glass, and 17 by the bottle, including the beautiful 2009 Baxter Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley for $45, the most expensive bottle on the list and worth it. Corkage is $10 for Mendocino and Lake county bottles, $12 for everything else. The non-alcoholic beverages are first rate, too, with labels like Fentiman's, Organic Wild Poppy Juice, and Bundaberg among them.
Saucy lives up to its name with the titles of some of its menu items, like <b>Drunk-Ass Clams</b> ($14 ****). Sweet, tender little Manila clams are steamed in Widmer Hefeweizen beer to make a broth that's enriched with smashed fresh garlic, butter and fresh herbs. Prawns have now supplanted the clams until fall, but when the clams get back on the menu, catch them if you can, they're that good.
<b>Bangin' Minestrone</b> ($8 ***) is a soupy mix-up of cannellini beans, bits of aged pork jowl called guanciale, fennel, tomato, kale and conchiglie pasta. All the ingredients are very fresh and carefully cooked to retain their identities, unlike the amorphous brown soup that often passes as minestrone at inferior Italian restaurants.
Since it's high summer, the arugula in the <b>Oven Roasted Beet Salad</b> ($8 **?) has grown herbaceous and peppery. But that spoils nothing in this easy salad of red and yellow roast beets, pistachios and goat cheese with a hint of pennyroyal, dressed in a vinaigrette made with oven-roasted shallots.