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. We invite you to come along with our writers as they have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
The staff roll their eyes at yet another reference to the Creekside Center restaurant's former tenant, Anthony's Music Box. Rosso's smaller space is unrecognizable from the once-rambling nightclub, except possibly that the smiling chef stands roughly in the spot of the long-ago DJ, spinning pizza dough and cooking it up in the central brick oven to a light techno soundtrack.
The setup is nice—friendly, plentiful staff, vintage Italian-style wall posters featuring local names like Redwood Hill goat cheese—but I wasn't comfortable at first. For one thing, I had heard eggs and spaghetti were offered as pizza toppings, and that disturbed me, without regard as to how either hip or authentic that may be. But minute by minute, I warmed up to the joint. Appetizers, or salumeria, are offered in categories "Gusto" and "Carne," most of which are meant to accompany the pizzetta ($3), a rich flatbread, as spreads and whatnot. We chose the warm olives ($3). Rosso is big on local produce, right down to the Love Farms thyme. The Rosso caesar ($8.50) with Sonoma romaine, creamy lemon anchovy dressing, Gorgonzola and Calabrian chiles (OK, not so local), is a satisfying salad. But my dining companion wanted to try the piadine, described as flat bread with a salad topping, with instructions to "fold it, cut it and eat it." My opinion was, there's bread, there's salad, why rock the table? But the Rosso caesar piadine ($7.95) was quite tasty and, contrary to my expectation, didn't spill all over the plate.
All main courses are "Pizze." We skipped the meatball and spaghetti Goomba ($11.50), opting for the Funghi ($12.50), which promised shiitake and cremini mushrooms in a garlic-informed white base with taleggio and fontina cheeses and shaved artichoke. It was such a pleasure that I hesitate to mention the unexpected appearance of chicken on the pie. (Since this is a quick snapshot, new concept and all that, I just did.) "This isn't artichoke, is it?" my vegetarian friend asked. As a sympathetic yet recovering vegetarian, I tasted and concluded—how do you say "quelle horreur" in Italian?—chicken. Our server at first attempted to explain the misappropriation of the fowl bits, but quickly offered to replace the pizza.
The excellent wine list is divided in categories "Here" (Sonoma), "There" (Italy) and "Everywhere" (Spain, New Zealand . . . Napa). Many bottles are under $30, and here's just how reasonable those prices are: A 2006 Quivira Rosé of Grenache ($19) is just $2 above retail. If the wine-by-the-glass list suffers from the conspicuous absence of Zinfandel amid so much pizza, unlisted wines are available by the bottle, corkage is only $10 and donated to the Santa Rosa soccer league, and all wines are available to go with a 15 percent discount. That's sweet for anyone who's ever complained about restaurant markup.
But the clincher was really the delectable, almost lovable warm olive appetizer. The chef stopped by to explain they are marinated for days in citrus and herbs, then baked in the brick oven. That so much time is invested in a $3 appetizer that rewards with such unexpected nuance of flavor seems to signal Rosso's genuine commitment to quality gustation. As for the spaghetti pizza? Um, you go first.
Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar, Creekside Center, 53 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. Open for lunch and dinner daily. 707.544.3221.