Get the buzz: Santi chef/co-owner Thomas Oden presides over a lively procession of diners at his popular Geyserville restaurant.

Saints Alive!

Seasonal Italian cuisine reigns at Santi

By Paula Harris

“MAIN STREET” at night seems dismally deserted as we wander along the silent sidewalk and cross the trafficless street. There are a few metal-fronted buildings and an old-fashioned general store specializing in saddles, tack, and western apparel. All is shadowy, just a patch of electric light on the corner spilling from the open post office door. Dead.

It’s Geyserville on a Thursday night.

This sleepy old place makes Graton look downright cosmopolitan by comparison. One could almost be forgiven for assuming Geyserville is located elsewhere–in Napa County or Mendocino County perhaps. But the teeny town snoozes in Sonoma County, located between the Alexander and the Dry Creek valleys, ringed by wineries, and a mere nine minutes’ drive north on Highway 101 from downtown Healdsburg. It’s actually a quiet respite from the now burgeoning Healdsburg plaza, transformed in recent years into a wine-tourist mecca.

Just as we conclude we’re meandering through a ghost town, someone throws open a door to a large building marked “Taverna,” there’s a burst of noise, and we glimpse a throng of people bellying up to a long bar, while others crowd the elegantly rustic restaurant beyond. Even on a Thursday night, Geyserville is teeming with life–and a lot of the teeming is at Santi restaurant.

The 6-month-old Santi (which means “saints” in Italian) is buzzing. Housed in the historic 1902 landmark building that was formerly Catelli the Rex restaurant, Santi is a gathering place for local vintners, growers, ranchers, and the occasional intrepid tourist who dares to venture beyond the Disneyesque charm of Healdsburg.

This night, the owners of nearby Trentadue Winery luxuriate over their pasta in a comfy oversize booth, while at a nearby table an older couple vacationing from New Orleans study the ample wine list.

The renovated restaurant features two comfortable dining rooms. Design details include buttery-lemon walls, a large stone fireplace, rich wood furniture, exposed brick, and ornate iron shutters. Out back is a romantic patio for warm-weather dining. And inside, the fully stocked bar is clearly a popular retreat. Former winery chefs Franco Dunn and Thomas Oden, of Jordan Vineyard and Winery, have created a menu that reflects Italian regional cuisine, evolves with the seasons, and enhances the local wines (their wine list is great).

The terrina di Anitra ($8.25), duck terrine with cress salad and 20-year-old balsamico, is a substantial appetizer special. A generous rose-brown slab of tasty terrine, a coarse paté, is drizzled with a touch of balsamic vinegar, although not enough to make any real impression flavorwise.

Crespelle di mais, zucchini e cippolini ($7.25), crepes with roasted corn, spinach, summer squash, and scallions, make a pleasing fall appetizer. Two delicate crepes are served hot, folded over crunchy fresh corn kernels that pop sweetly in the mouth and napped with a hot, creamy sauce.

The hit of the evening is the risotto de gamberi, zucchini e cippolini ($11.25/small and $14.25/large). A risotto with rock shrimp, summer squash, and chives, it’s a lovely bowlful. Perfectly separated grains of arborio rice are studded with green zucchini, chives, parsley, and–best of all–plump spirals of moist, flavorful rock shrimp. In fact, shrimp in every forkful. The whole effect is a comforting light creaminess enlivened by the seafood. De-lish.

While the galletto al mattone ($14.75), young chicken cooked under a brick with sautéed sweet peppers, red onion, herbs, and roasted potatoes, is fine, it’s not spectacular. A nightly pasta special, tortelli di zucca ($9.25), floors us. It’s described as “home-made pasta filled with purée of winter squash, amaretti cookies, mostarda, and Parmigiano with brown butter sauce.” But the dish is overly heady and cloyingly sweet with amaretto flavor. There’s nothing else on the plate to counterbalance the teeth-jarring effect. We end up scraping out the awful filling and just eating the pasta half moons.

Maybe this dish would be better on the dessert menu?

As for desserts, we sample a spuma di limone con frutti di bosco ($5.25), lemon mousse with mixed berries that has the required sweet-tart flavor, but unfortunately has a fallen texture like runny custard; and a luscious panna cotta ($5.75), a cool cream with a slight gelatinous texture and a pleasing vanilla finish.

All in all, Santi is a popular place and worth a trip to the hushed, nostalgia-filled Geyserville. Just think twice about the cookie-crammed pasta.

Santi Address: 21047 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville; 707. 857.1790. Hours: Daily, lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, 5:30 to around 8:30 p.m. Food: Italian, emphasizing wine-friendly seasonal delicacies Service: Good Ambiance: Warm , rustic elegance Price: Moderate to expensive. Wine list: Very ample selection, loads of local favorites Overall: 2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

From the October 26-November 1, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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