Photograph by Marissa Guggiana
BIG STAR: Christian Caiazzo on his Pt. Reyes farm, where he grows fresh ingredients to honor his Italian heritage.
Local produce meets traditional Italian dishes at Osteria Stellina
By Jonah Raskin
Christian Caiazzo makes lasagna that's to die for, and only on birthdays and holidays. In his kitchen, with the oven at 500 degrees, he layers the lasagna pan with spinach pasta, sauce made with turkey, pork and beef, and a béschamel. On top, he sprinkles fresh Parmesan cheese and then cooks the lasagna for 45 minutes so that, as he tells me on a recent day in Point Reyes Station, "it cooks from the bottom to the top and bubbles up."
The kicker? His lasagna contains neither ricotta nor mozzarella.
To find a more delicious version of the traditional Italian dish, a gourmet might have to hunker down in Bologna, Italy, where cooks have been making lasagna and hungry Italians have been eating it for centuries. Caiazzo's recipe for lasagna comes right from Italy, the same place where his father's parents were both born. With a name like Caiazzo, where else on the face of the earth could they possibly have sprung?
The ingredients for his lasagna—meat, spinach and cheese—are all local. The noodles are made in-house at Osteria Stellina, where Caiazzo is the capo, or captain, and where his recipe for amazingly tasty food is fresh, with organic produce from nearby farms used for beloved Italian dishes: osso buco; bucatini pasta with clams, parsley, garlic and chilies; pizza with pepperoni, sausage or prosciutto.
In Italian, the word capo is short for caporegime; a caporegime could mean anyone from the captain of a football team to a fellow, such as Caiazzo, who owns and operates a restaurant. But traditionally, the word refers to the kinds of tough guys depicted in The Godfather. It was Caiazzo's Italian barber who first started calling the chef "capo"; the title fit him, in a non-Godfather-ly sort of way, and it now appears in italics on Caiazzo's business card.
When Caiazzo arrived years ago for the first time in Point Reyes Station—"on a whim," he says—he had no intention of opening a restaurant or becoming the town capo. He was an outsider, born in Connecticut and a refugee from city grime and crime. After 20 years of work as dishwasher, busboy, bartender and waiter, he simply had to slow down. The air in Point Reyes Station was good medicine, the more leisurely pace of life a tonic. Folks were friendly, neighborly.
Caiazzo began to look around at the beautiful farms, innovative farmers and the impressive array of foodies and gourmets, and realized he needed to go back and do what he knew best.
"This is an amazing place for food," he tells me as we wander about Point Reyes Station, taking a drive to his place on the outskirts of town—not far from the house where author Philip K. Dick once lived. Upon arrival, we tour the vegetable garden in his backyard where he grows produce for the restaurant, just 1.3 miles away. We walk through rows of kale, tasting it while Caiazzo talks about how he fell in love with Marin, how Marin changed his life and, ultimately, how he helped change Marin by the kinds of food people eat and the ways that they think and talk about food.
"This area is a paradise for fresh produce," he says. "There are Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, a zillion varieties of organic fruits and vegetables, Hog Island oysters, meat from Niman and other ranches that raise goats, pigs, sheep and cattle. There are amazing foragers; today a forager brought me mushrooms. I forage for things like pineapple guava that grow in town. The other wonderful thing about this place is that locals know what good food looks like and tastes like; they really appreciate a delicious, healthy meal."
Before he opened Osteria Stellina in 2008, Caiazzo launched Toby's Coffee Bar, serving lattes and cappuccinos to locals and tourists who flocked to nearby Point Reyes National Seashore. Then he went into the grilled cheese business, serving sandwiches hot off the grill at the local farmers market. Finally, he was ready to dive into the restaurant business again.
Caiazzo decided to open an osteria, he says, because in Italy, osterias serve country food to country people. "Stellina," which means "little star," is also the name of his daughter. At the time, he humbly thought that his little restaurant—it seats about 60—might earn a little star from a restaurant reviewer.
Three years later, Osteria Stellina has a national reputation built on local ingredients that go into what Caiazzo proudly calls "Point Reyes Italian food." The reputation is also built on a team of cooks, bakers and pastry makers who look up to Caiazzo as the capo with the passion to remain true to his ethnic roots—and true to his 4-foot-10 grandmother, Elvira, who fed him when he was a boy and told him, "I love to watch you eat."
It takes teamwork to make a great restaurant, and Caiazzo has great team players. Alex Schifman, the sous-chef, brings his own recipes to the menu. Pastry chef Laura Matis loves the opportunity to use local berries, know local farmers and plan season by season. Kaki McLachlan, who waits tables and enjoys meeting tourists from Montana, Georgia and Massachusetts. Caiazzo loves making lasagna, foraging for food, gabbing with local farmers and looking back at his Italian heritage.
"My grandfather would probably say that the food here is not Italian, because we're not big on tomato sauce," he says. "We're Italian in a different way. We serve food in the style of Sicily, Tuscan and Naples, and that kind of Italian is good enough for me."
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