Wine Country ideas for living like an Italian

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This harvest season, if you’d like to explore the “imaginary” Italy of the North Bay, we’ve got your passport and itinerary ready.

We asked some of our favorite Italian-inspired chefs, farmers and winemakers to chime in on the question: How do you live like an Italian in Wine Country? Cue the soundtrack of “Il Postino.”

Growing your own Costata Romanesco zucchini then frying it up without a recipe? Check.

Filling up one jug with olive oil and the other with wine? Check.

Slurping up briny oysters and washing them down with prosecco, all while drinking in the ocean air? Check.

U-pick produce? Italian delis? Cooking classes? Italian varietals? The list goes on and on.

Spoiler alert: You will probably work up an appetite for la dolce vita (the sweet life) — a term coined by the 1960 Fellini film — as you wander about, exploring where to shop, how to cook and what kinds of delicious side trips to take along the way.

Grab your fedora or your silk scarf, your Campari spritzer or your paper plane cocktail. Things are about to get very bright and breezy this fall. Salute!

How to shop, cook and drink

First and foremost, Italian culture is all about honoring local and seasonal foods, simply prepared and shared in a leisurely fashion.

“Food is so much a part of their culture,” said cooking instructor Lisa Lavagetto of Ramekins in Sonoma. “I think it is their religion.”

Food is so much a part of their culture. I think it is their religion.
— cooking instructor Lisa Lavagetto of Ramekins in Sonoma

Lavagetto grew up in an Irish family in the Midwest, and everything she ate came out of a can. Then she married her Italian husband and learned to cook from his grandmother, who never used a recipe.

“She used to knock me on the head because I would try to write down the recipe, and she’d point to her mouth — taste, taste, taste,” she said. “That’s how they cook, and that’s how I cook now.”

Because Sonoma County resembles the gently rolling hills of Tuscany and Genoa, Lavagetto explained, the northern Italian immigrants settled here, while Calabrian and Sicilian immigrants stayed mostly on the East Coast.

For an authentic taste of Italy, she heads to the Genoa Delicatessen in Napa, which imports charcuterie, marinated mushrooms, dried pastas, amaretto cookies and so much more from the Motherland.

“Even their prepared foods are authentic,” she said. “The torta is fantastic, and their raviolis are made right there, soft and tasty, in the traditional way, with ricotta cheese and spinach.”

After Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards and Farm studied wine growing at UC Davis, he discovered himself in the heart of the Dry Creek Valley living among third- and fourth-generation farming transplants from Asti and Genoa with names like Cavallo and Teldeschi.

“I felt like I had died and woken up in Tuscany,” he said. “Being Italian connotes a relationship to the land and local customs. In my world of viticulture that includes, but goes beyond, respect for the local terroir and wine varietals.”

Almost by osmosis, Lou was transformed into “Luigi.” He put in bocce courts at the winery, built his own bread-baking “forno” and drank red wine out of tumblers.

Then, he started filling up his jug at Chateau Rege, the Dry Creek Valley winery that supplied his Italian-American wife Susan’s favorite North Beach shop with jug wine. Today, he makes his own jug wine, Guadagni, at the winery as a tribute to old-timer Jim Guadagni. You can refill your jug on Sundays in the cellar.

Preston later turned his attention to growing food as well as grapes, baking his own bread and selling vegetables from his winery garden.

If you’re up in the Dry Creek Valley to visit Preston, don’t forget to stop by the Dry Creek Peach and Produce for some late-season stone fruit.

Also, swing by Pete Seghesio’s Journeyman Meat Co. in Healdsburg for his traditional, slow-fermented salumi for late-afternoon snacking and picnics. If you join the Journeyman Meat Guild, you’ll get quarterly shipments plus perks like his annual sausage-making party.

Big John’s Market and Oliver’s offer a wide selection of Italian and local cheeses, such as the luscious Bellwether Farms Whole Milk Ricotta, perfect with pasta dishes or dabbed onto grilled peaches for dessert.

Fresh vegetables

A few years ago, Deborah Walton and her husband Tim Schable sold their Two Rock farm, Canvas Ranch, and retired part-time to a stone farmhouse in the tiny Tuscan village of Santa Fiora, an authentic Italian community where she now enjoys growing vegetables for herself in her tiny “orto” garden.

Walton’s neighbors all grow and shop daily for their own vegetables. Each village has a farmers market that is open at least weekly. If you miss yours, you can always head to another village.

“Fresh, seasonal vegetables are truly the norm,” she said. “The biggest difference is in all the grocery stores. They don’t have a separate section for organic fruits and vegetables because they ALL are. Only it’s called ‘biologico.’”

She makes her own fresh pasta — it’s “super simple” — and throws together a few tomatoes, garlic, fresh herbs and olive oil for a sauce.

The former champion of local grains said she recently enjoyed the best salad of her life at an Italian restaurant next to a farro mill. It was made with semi-pearled farro, cooked al dente; cubes of cucumber, tomato, cippolini onion and pecorino cheese; diced basil, rosemary and walnuts: and a dressing of extra virgin olive oil and sea salt.

Liza Hinman of the Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa got her Sonoma County start cooking pasta at Santi in Geyserville with Ari Rosen and Dino Bugica, a few of the talented, artisanal chefs in Sonoma County.

Hinman still misses Traverso’s, the deli and wine shop where the entire Italian community in Santa Rosa used to shop, but instead she will shop for vegetables at Imwalle Gardens and the farmers markets.

For last-minute dinners at her home, Hinman will also head to the Healdsburg SHED to pick up some simple staples like cheese, chicken liver pate, bread, wine and strawberries.

“A friend was visiting, and we grilled a leg of lamb and sausages,” she said. “Then I made a bunch of salads to share with the pate and bread and cheese.”

For another feast, she joined forces with sausage-maker Franco Dunn to raise money for the food stamps program at the Original Santa Rosa Farmers Market at the LBC.

“We went for a big, Italian outdoor spread with lots of marinated vegetables and salads,” she said. “Franco made his mother’s zucchini recipe … he quartered the Costata Romanesco into long pieces and fried it with big chunks of garlic and sage, then finished it with a red wine vinaigrette, salt and chili flakes. Then let it all cool.”

For that feast, they used one of their favorite extra virgin olive oils — the Eyrie Olive Oil, grown on the shoulder of Taylor Mountain by Suzanne and Lewis Jester, who mix eight Tuscan varietals from their 500 trees into a field blend oil.

“That gives it the interesting and full-bodied flavor,” Suzanne said. “Eyrie means eagle’s nest and a very high place. We’re 900 feet above the valley floor … it feels like Tuscany.”

The award-winning olive oil, which used to be called Terra Bella, can only be purchased at the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market or at Lazzini’s Market on Bennett Valley Road, another good source for Italian products like imported panettone and dried pasta.

For your harvest feasts, Rosen of Campo Fina restaurant in Healdsburg also suggests going to the Healdsburg farmers markets to source the famous Italian Cinta Senese pork, raised by Front Porch Farm of Healdsburg. The Farm does monthly u-pick events, with the next one scheduled from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 13 for u-pick pumpkins and tomatoes, apple pressing and harvest treats.

Olive oil and bread

It’s not a big feast unless there’s a rustic, flavorful pot of polenta. Rosen is fond of the heirloom, Italian flint-corn, Floriano, which is grown by Front Porch and sold at the Healdsburg SHED. The flavorful corn, which has not gone through degerming, takes about three hours too cook but is magical once united with a trio of butter, cream and cheese. (You can also taste it on the SHED breakfast menu or with the meatballs-to-go on Wednesday nights.)

Bugica, who owns both Diavola restaurant and The Geyserville Gun Club Bar and Lounge, had the good fortune to marry an Italian, and the couple enjoys canning their own tomato sauce and peppers and buying anchovies and garlic from the farmers market in the fall, along with making refreshing Italian cocktails.

“And I’m a big fan of the Aperol spritz, Campari & soda and the paper plane drink,” Bugica said. The paper plane cocktail is a pleasingly bitter blend of bourbon, Aperol, amaro and lemon juice.

You’re not in Italy unless you’ve got a jug of olive oil next to your stove and a loaf of rustic bread — Della Fattoria in Petaluma makes delicious loaves studded with olives or Meyer lemon and rosemary — for dipping.

You can pick your own olives this fall and take them to Trattore/Dry Creek Olive Oil in Geyserville for the community milling days on Oct. 28, Nov. 18 or Dec. 2. Or you can fill your jug with olive oil from Da Vero Farms & Winery in Healdsburg (now open by appointment only) or The Olive Press in Sonoma.

“The Olive Press has so many varietals to choose from,” Lavagetto said. “You can taste them, and then choose the one your want.”

Preston also suggested approaching a small producer and asking if there is any bulk oil available from the recent harvest, which normally takes place in November.

“Get together with your friends, buy some 5-gallon buckets and have your own bottling party,” he said. “There are some superb oils being produced in the North Coast Wine Country right now — just follow the olive trees.”

Sonoma County wineries growing and making food-friendly Italian varietal wines are worth seeking out for those big feasts and leisurely lunches.

In the Healdsburg area, try Acorn, Da Vero, Seghesio and Unti. At Da Vero, you can also purchase a refillable jug of the Pollo Rosso red wine blend and refill your bottle of extra virgin olive oil. While you’re there, pick up some aged balsamic vinegar, too. Be sure to call first.

In the Sonoma area, Jacuzzi Family Vineyards offers a wide variety of Italian varietals, from arneis and dolcetto to moscato and montepulciano.

Lavagetto is particularly fond of the Late Harvest Aleatico, which is fresh, slightly sweet and highly allocated.

Where to go, what to do

When you’re not eating at home, you want to go out and eat some delicious Italian food, right?

If you need a pesto fix, Art’s Place in Rohnert Park — run by Pasta King Art Ibleto, originally from Liguria — serves up one of the best in town, whether on top of pasta or pizza.

For Tuscan-style pizza, Rosso Pizzeria and Franchetti’s Wood Fire Kitchen, both of Santa Rosa, offer the wood-fired, slighted charred thin-crust pizza that will take you back to Naples. In Napa, the funky and fun Oenotri restaurant also serves authentic Italian pizzas.

If you’re looking for a long, leisurely lunch, try Zazu in Sebastopol (and order the housemade gelato for dessert) or Della Santina’s in Sonoma, which has a beautiful outdoor patio. Geyserville restaurants Catelli’s and Diavola also offer authentic, Italian food to savor al fresco on their patios.

“I would go to Dino’s patio at Diavola for a pizza and rosé or a panini and salad for lunch,” Hinman said. “For a Big Night feast, I’m waiting for the Jade Room to open in Santa Rosa so I can drink champagne and eat oysters.”

Those with a sweet tooth can head to the Downtown Bakery or Noble Folk in Healdsburg for an affogato — espresso with a shot of gelato or ice cream — and most all the Italian restaurants in the county serve a yummy tiramisu, including Santa Rosa’s Ca’Bianca Ristorante Italiano, Trattoria Cattaneo and LoCoco’s Cucina Rustica, which also rolls up homemade cannoli.

Since October is Italian Heritage Month, the folks at Seghesio Family Vineyards invite you to share wine, food and stories during their Italian Heritage Dinner on Oct. 13.

Bocce courts

For a well-rounded Italian experience, of course, you need to head to the bocce ball court. There are courts at Preston, Davis Family, Seghesio and Campo Fina in Healdsburg as well as Taft Street Winery in Graton and Juilliard Park in Santa Rosa, which also has an active league.

To sharpen your culinary skills, take one of the cooking classes offered around the county. Viola Buitoni will lure in students to Healdsburg SHED with “The Italian Way with Fish” on Oct. 7; Lavagetto will teach “A Night of Gnocchi and Ravioli” at Ramekins in Sonoma on Oct. 10; and Rosetta Constantino will bake up some “Southern Italian Desserts” on Dec. 14 at the Artisan Baking Center in Petaluma.

To get closer to the earth, head outdoors on a sunny day and forage for fennel and mushrooms, go fishing or wild boar hunting.

If you’d rather just have a picnic, go to a beach on the Russian River or order the fresh oysters at the Marshall Store in Tomales Bay.

Better yet, invite friends to your own backyard for a slow food harvest feast, cooked by you and your friends … or your favorite caterer.

Liguria-born Angelo Ibleto of Angelo’s Meats and Sausages in Petaluma creates a perfect porcine dish: a whole pig, deboned and stuffed with pork butts, then roasted until it melts like butter. He once prepared that masterpiece for filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, owner of Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville and creator of the epic “Godfather” trilogy.

And speaking of “Godfather” — with its themes of honor, loyalty, betrayal and revenge — you can experience some of that raw passion this fall at the San Francisco Opera season, which opens with Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” this month and continues with Puccini’s “Tosca” in October. Closer to home, the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live on Screen” at the Rialto in Sebastopol opens with Verdi’s “Aida” on Oct. 6.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

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