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First Bite

The Red Grape

By Jonah Raskin

Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.

The Red Grape doesn't look or sound like the noisy, working-class pizza joints I inhabited as a boy growing up back east. It offers no jukebox, provides no accented Italian waiters and pours no cheap red wine.

Located on Sonoma's plaza, the Red Grape instead sparkles, shines and feels Californian. Most importantly, it serves delectable thin-crust pizzas with fresh ingredients and a dazzling array of toppings. I probably would not have appreciated the Red Grape as a boy, but I do now, as a health-conscious adult who still is, after all these years, in love with pizza.

Sam and Carol Morphy, the Red Grape's hospitable owners, come from Madison, Conn., near New Haven. When they first decided to open a restaurant, they wanted their pizza to remind them, and everyone else, of the best East Coast pizza--nothing like the pizza I had eaten. The Morphys ate pizza everywhere and made pizza at home for months, trying out their own recipes until they knew exactly what they wanted. The menu at the Red Grape testifies to their diligent homework, good taste and their own abiding love for pizza in its present incarnation as "New Haven-style," often touted as the best in America.

Eating at their restaurant means choosing between a large, comfortable dining room and an outdoor patio--with umbrellas for shade--that's perfect for eating alfresco. The four-page menu provides extensive choices and there are always specials, including various paninis and pastas. With three friends from Sonoma, we ordered four pizzas: the peppers and Gorgonzola ($11.95), the Neapolitan and sausage ($12.95), the margherita ($11.25) and the primavera ($11.95) with organic whole-wheat crust that's an extra $1.50.

We started with two salads, an adequate caesar ($6.25) and a superlative spinach ($6.25) replete with hard-boiled egg, bacon and mushrooms, that were large enough for four.

As a growing boy, I'd have thought the pizzas were puny. As an adult, they aren't an insult to my appetite at all. In fact, four adults could not finish four pizzas, and, when I looked from plate to plate after everyone had finished eating, I saw that no one had left even a morsel of chewy crust. While the restaurant may serve 200 pizzas a day, they all seem to come out timed just right and steaming hot when they arrive at the table. The margherita, everyone's favorite, has lots of fresh garlic and basil. The primavera comes with broccoli, artichokes, mushrooms, peppers and onions. The fennel sausage tastes sweet and tender, and all the cheeses are genuine and fresh.

While we ate, Tony, an old friend, regaled us with memories of his Sicilian-born grandmother who made her own thick-crust pizza, rolling out the dough on her bed, the only surface big enough in her tiny apartment. Nobody rushed us. No noise drowned out our conversation.

We ate, talked and drank iced tea ($1.95) for hours and finished the afternoon with real gelato ($3.95), choosing among mocha, vanilla bean and peppermint flavors.

The Morphys, who come from Irish and German stock, prove that you don't have to be Italian to make perfect pizza. You no longer have to go back east to eat the best of thin-crust New Haven-style pizza, either.

The Red Grape. 529 First St. W., Sonoma. Lunch and dinner, daily. 707.996.4103.

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From the February 15-21, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

Copyright © 2006 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.