Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sonoma eats - Della Santina

A trip to downtown Sonoma for dinner was a great diversion last week. Since moving north, I've pretty much been holed up in my small apartment, hiking daily in the nearby open space, and not driving very far.  Not that I'm complaining.  My poor car needed a workout though, so I ventured across Stage Gulch road, the backroad into Sonoma from Petaluma.  Stage Gulch is a gorgeous drive, with expansive mustard fields dotted with new spring poppies around every turn.  The Tin Bar is on the corner of Stage Gulch and Lakeville Hwy.  I've always wanted to stop there for a drink, but haven't wanted to have to get in the car afterward, as shots of Jameson and beers  seem like they'd be the norm (and when in Rome...).  A few miles further, in between vineyards and rolling oak trees, is the turnoff to Willie Bird Farms, a free range turkey farm that has been there forever.  A trip between Sonoma and Petaluma is about 25 minutes max, and that's door to door, town square to town... well, Petaluma doesn't really have a square, but you know what I'm getting at.

Sliding into a parking space in the very quaint middle of town, I decided on a quick drink at The Girl and the Fig, one of many restaurants, cheese shops, and boutique inns lining Sonoma's historic square.  The Sonoma Mission (actually called the Mission San Francisco Solano) spans the northeast corner, which is the last mission to be built, and apparently not approved by Spain's government, since they must have known exactly what they were disapproving of from way the hell across the Atlantic.  Rumors say they built it because Mission Dolores was too cold and was making the Indians sick.  Or was it the white man's diseases?  Better to blame it on the weather...  The square is also the site of the famous "Bear Flag Revolt", a battle to try to gain independence from northern creeping Mexico territory (which eventually occurred during the ensuing Mexican American War).

Enough of history though, and back to food and drink.  As the Girl and the Fig is one of the Sonoma's most notable restaurants.  I sidled up to the bar and one of my old standbys, St. Germain Elderflower Liquour, called out to me (I am a girl, after all), .  A quick perusal of the menu and in matter of seconds (it really was that fast) I had a gin, St. Germain, Lillet, lemon concoction before me.  Small but strong, I was feeling pretty good and about to order a second when my friend M finally showed up.  We decided to stay on for another drink and "snack" (as he likes to put it).  The "snack" consisted of Grass Fed Steak Tartare with cornichons, mustard, and toasts.  Deliciously seasoned with capers, the tartare, which until I met M, I could take or leave, was a fabulous start to an indulgent evening.  A glass of Central Coast Viognier was just fruity and floral enough to balance the piquant mustard.  M settled on a Racer 5 beer, which also went very well with the salty/vinegar of the dish.

Ambling down the street for more "snacks," we were disappointed to find the Harvest Moon Cafe closed on Tuesdays.  How dare they?!  Instead of walking the short distance to the other side of the square  (as prior so-so experiences at the El Dorado Kitchen had left us wanting), we jumped into the car and parked over on the southeast corner (yes lazy, but why walk off a nice buzz?).  We poked our heads into Cafe LeHaye, full and bustling for a warm spring Tuesday, and then decided on Della Santina, an old-school Italian place I was already fond of, even though I had never once been.  You see, Shirley and Dan Della Santina are regulars at one of my old jobs and always took care of me.  The sweetest couple, I was glad to be spending my hard earned bucks in their establishment.  Of course I wasn't expecting them to be working, as their son Robert runs the place now. Dan is still the chef though, and his recipes hail back to the old country with items like Gnocchi alla Nonna on the menu, it brings a tear to eye imagining his Tuscan mother rolling and cutting long ropes of potato laced dough. A brick alleyway leads to interior dining rooms and bar and ends in an enclosed brick patio, straight out of Europe, with white latticework and an old Wisteria vine twisting this way and that.  Slightly funky and probably built in 1922, the patio gives off a familial, rustic and unpretentious air.  The setting prepared me to possibly forgive a few missteps on the food.   Like travelling in a different country, I was ready for anything.

That's probably why when M said "Tripa" four times, looking for a nod of approval from me, I gave in and said, "sure".  You see, in all of my time visiting restaurants over the years, the only place I've ever bothered to notice tripe is in giant bowls of menudo on Saturday and Sunday mornings while I stop into my local taqueria for a (hungover) spicy fix. Somehow, this is one organ meat that seems to have found its way right past me.  M is Brazilian, and apparently tripe is alive and well in the Brazilian food repertoire.   That doesn't surprise me, as us "Americans" are hopelessly behind the times when it comes to offal, hooves and snouts.

We chose a spinach and arugula salad, the tripe, and an organic Porterhouse steak to split.  That's what happens when you are dining with a Brazilian:  meat, meat and more meat.  We were both starving, and the arugula and spinach salad with roasted garlic vinaigrette went down fast.  Robert sent out a second salad of mixed greens draped with thinly sliced pork loin..  By this time we had our wine, a 2003 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi.  100% Aglianico, indigenous to Campagna.  The saline, earthy and dusty nature of this great Italian red provided a perfect complement to the mustard dressing.  And of course the Brazilian was happy another meat dish had hit the table.

Next came the tripe, an ample bowl dotted with chunks of sausage sitting atop crispy polenta triangles.  A moment of hesitation ensued, would I be mortified by this huge dish of entrails, leaving my dining partner to revel all by his lonesome?  One bite and the answer came:  must-have-more.  Soft and only chewy enough to not fall apart, with all those microvilli soaking up the zesty tomato sauce, followed with a crispy bite of polenta...  You may be squirming in your seat reading this, especially the graphic scientific terms.  Knowing me a bit better you wouldn't be surprised.  Dinner conversation has no limits in my book.  And apparently I am now a huge tripe fan.  I'm not sure why I'm surprised by this, as anything connective tissue oriented:  gristle, that membrane that pulls away from the pork ribs when it is perfectly done cooking, chewy fat morsels...  Okay, you get the picture. 

Okay, so needless to say we polished off that bowl in a short time.  I would have more photos of the food, but the lighting was so dim, my poor cell phone just could not make anything out.  I was a slight bit concerned we didn't save enough room for the Porterhouse, but when it arrived, a beautiful grass fed organic piece of love, glistening with charred goodness from the grill, we had to fight for how to divide up the NY and tenderloin. And of course, who gets the edge with all that amazing caramelized fat??  (we split that too)
The steak was perfectly cooked medium rare, with just enough crispy roasted potatoes to chase down each bite (although I could have used a few more, but isn't that always the case for me?).  As we polished off the wine, full bellies and the warm spring breeze swirling about the dining room, I hoped Robert didn't have any tiramisu left, as there was no possible way I could fit one more morsel.  I'd have to wait for next time,  and there would definitely be a next time, as my first visit to Della Santinas had been way tardy, and I had some catching up to do.

Della Santinas, 133 E. Napa Street, Sonoma

The Girl and The Fig, 110 W. Spain Street, Sonoma

Harvest Moon Cafe, 487 1st Street West, Sonoma

Cafe La Haye, 140 E. Napa Street, Sonoma

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