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02.17.10

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Phaedra

Photograph by Michael Amsler

Little Italy

In the land of American Italian dining, Cafe Citti is the real deal

By Rose McMackin


Lots of restaurants are long on pretension and short on good food, but Cafe Citti is just the opposite. Visitors order their porcini-stuffed raviolis and kalamata-olive-topped pizza at the counter and find their own seats. For chef-owner Luca Citti, there's nothing counterintuitive about fancy food in a casual setting. Though never formally trained in cooking, Citti possesses an intuitive sense of taste that seems innate; like the French, the Portuguese and the Spanish, the Italians consider fresh, delicious food their birthright.

Originally from Tuscany, Citti aims to please his inner Italian in his approach to cooking and serving food. He offers a kind of food that is largely absent from the American palate in this post–Olive Garden era. His dishes are as rich in vegetables as they are in carbs, the raviolis are the size of a fist and the sauces are light, rather than overpowering.

"I've had Italian people [come in] who are on vacation, and it makes me happy when they tell me this is good, that this is their first time eating decent Italian food in a month," Citti says, noting how similar Sonoma County's climate and rolling hills are to his native Lucca.

On a recent Wednesday night, Citti, freshly back from a mushroom-foraging trip and wearing a baseball cap, chats affably with a table of regulars. Nearby, four women share a thickly frosted birthday cake. They linger, laughing and talking, long after their leftovers have been boxed up. These women, Citti says, have been coming here since the restaurant opened 20 years ago.

"I've seen people die of old age, and their wife is still coming and she'll tell me what happened. And it's sad, not because I lost a customer, but because it's like losing a part of the cafe," Citti explains. "They treat me like family. I like that."

Originally a pastry chef, Citti opened his doors in 1990, serving traditional Italian-style breakfasts, which, like continental breakfasts, are heavy on fruit and baked goods. The cafe met with so much local success that the gradual expansion of the menu and hours to include lunch and dinner seemed an obvious next step.

The menu is written on white boards because it changes daily to keep up with the seasons. Behind the counter and cash register, the kitchen is small, but bustling. A crackling fireplace invites guests in on chilly winter evenings, while a villa-inspired patio ushers them out into the summer sun for lunch. In European tradition, portions are on the small side, but satisfyingly rich and reasonably priced.

Cafe Citti advertises itself as a "trattoria." There's no satisfying English equivalent for this word, falling somewhere between restaurant and deli.

Over the years, Citti's cooking earned the sort of word-of-mouth cred that can't be bought. In Kenwood, on Highway 12, with its unassuming white fašade and modest white sign, this local favorite almost seems to be hiding in plain sight. Instead of devoting excessive time and money to flashy stylings, Citti has focused intently on the food.

He makes nearly all the ingredients himself, from prosciutto to the mozzarella. A rack of his salami is down to the last couple links. A moist chocolate cake stands to be sliced. In the back garden, black cabbage, grown from seeds brought from Italy, is almost ready to be made into zuppa alla frantoiana.

Citti explains that if he could, he would probably be happy working for free. It's easy to believe him.

"The biggest challenge are the long hours," he says thoughtfully. "But it isn't really a challenge because I enjoy it. I always did. I'm happy when people come and say this is like my grandmother—or better."

Cafe Citti is in the $19 prix fixe category for Sonoma County Restaurant Week. 9047 Sonoma Hwy. (Highway 12), Kenwood. 707.833.2690.


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