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That's Italian!

[whitespace] Della Santina's
Michael Amsler

Secret garden: The atmosphere is cozy and mellow in the courtyard at Della Santina's just off the Sonoma Plaza.

Delightful outdoor dining at Della Santina's

By Paula Harris

AFTER a monotonous succession of cool gray days, the sun suddenly cracked through the clouds late one recent Sunday afternoon. The sure-fire tonic to El Niño blahs was to hit the road and follow the streaming golden light as it beckoned between the long shadows slanting across the vineyards all along Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Sonoma. The clouds clung to the tip of the Mayacamas mountains in a single charcoal band, and the air smelled of lavender and honeysuckle. Finally summer!

Our destination: Della Santina's, a combination trattoria/rostic-ceria/pasticceria, an informal, family-run Italian eatery, which also features roasted meats and house-made pastries. Once housed in a cramped space on one corner of the plaza, the restaurant has now expanded into the choice location that was previously Les Arcades, and more recently, East Side Oyster Bar and Grill.

The restaurant has a pleasant indoor dining room with artwork on the pale walls and starched white linen tablecloths, but we needed to prolong the sensation of fresh air and sunlight. Tucked out of view from the street is Della Santina's hidden gem: a small rustic patio garden, which is reached by strolling through a wrought-iron gate, along a narrow uneven brick walkway and past oversize terra-cotta urns that sport cascading greenery.

The garden is naturally sheltered by a canopy of spindly shade trees, hanging overhead grapevines, and an ivy-covered trellis. There is also a retractable canvas awning shielding one section. Several tables with comfortable wrought-iron chairs are placed beneath decorative heat lamps. During our visit each table was set with a spray of miniature crimson carnations in a bud vase beside a bottle of golden-green olive oil. A fountain gurgled and splashed, cheerfully accompanying singer Andrea Bocelli, whose sweeping voice surged from the outdoor sound system.

We whetted our appetites with a small spinach and radicchio salad ($4.25) that arrived fresh, crisp, and lightly dressed with a subtle roasted- garlic vinaigrette.

The minestrone del contadino ($5.25) was a hearty country-style vegetable soup brimming with generous chunks of cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, and celery. Even without the beans or pasta, found in many Italian vegetable soups, this broth tasted lush and full-flavored.

There was a good broad spectrum of Italian and California wines. To elevate the Sonoma-Italia experience, we chose one of the five California-grown Italian varietals: a 1994 Atlas Peak Sangiovese ($28). A medium-bodied, well-balanced red, it tasted of plummy fruits and a hint of licorice.

Our server was friendly but unobtrusive, and he recommended the day's special pasta dish: house-made penne with mushrooms ($12.25). This was a pleasing blend of expertly cooked, ribbed penne pasta cloaked in a rich savory sauce containing pieces of porcini and portobello mushrooms.

Next we tried the prawn dish, gamberoni dorati ($15.50), which was a disappointment. Listed on the menu as "prawns dore in a wine, lemon, and butter sauce," the prawns arrived coated in a limp egg batter that we found gave an unpleasant texture and flavor. We asked about this, and the server told us this was the correct preparation for a "dorati" dish. The prawns came with roasted potatoes and steamed broccoli.

The gnocchi of the day ($10.95) was a better choice. The plump mouthful-sized pillows of potato pasta came with a rosy glaze of tomato and basil, a lovely sauce that was delicate and light but slightly creamy.

DELLA SANTINA'S rosticceria boasts a mouth-watering selection of roasted meats. There's spit-roasted chicken redolent with fresh herbs ($12.95); herb-filled loin of pork in natural juices ($12.95); roast turkey ($11.95); Petaluma duck with wild rice ($14.75); and spit-roasted rabbit ($13.50). As the last item was not available on two recent visits, bunny-fanciers may want to call ahead.

A combination plate of any three roasted meats ($14.75) is a great choice for indecisive diners. We sampled the chicken, pork, and duck medley. Plainly roasted with herbs and basted with natural juices, each succulent item was a study in simplicity. The roasts were accompanied by crunchy, flavorful oven-browned potatoes and steamed asparagus spears.

As the sun eventually slipped down, a server brought out a tray of shimmering votive candles and set one on each table. The atmosphere outdoors was cozy and mellow, and it felt as though we were lingering in a friend's garden after dark.

For dessert, we selected a couple of house-made goodies. A lemon tart ($5) had a smooth, slightly acidic citrus topping and a dense pastry base that was hard to break into with a fork. We preferred the spongy, creamy tiramisu ($5) edged with ladyfingers and layered with whipped cream, cocoa, and mascarpone cheese. Although it looked heavy, this was an airy puff of a dessert that dissolved in the mouth.

As we prepared to leave, we noticed KGO-TV's Dr. Dean Edell seated at a neighboring table. Although we subtly craned our necks and squinted in the semi-darkness, we could not see whether he'd ordered low-fat fare. We mused that it was a pity his colleague meteorologist- celeb Pete Giddings wasn't also at the table--we would have liked to ask him if the sudden balmy weather would last.

If it does, Della Santina's is definitely a fine place to enjoy it.


Della Santina's
Address: 133 E. Napa St., Sonoma; 935-0576
Hours: Open daily; lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.; dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m.
Food: Italian, specialties of pastas and roast meats
Service: Friendly, and unobtrusive
Ambiance: Rustic garden patio and indoor dining
Price: Moderate
Wine list: Good selection of California and Italian offerings
Overall: *** (out of 4)

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From the July 9-15, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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