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Tabletop Talent 

Local chefs offer deals with Sonoma County Restaurant Week

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If you're like us, you've combed the couch for change at least twice in the last month. You eye your shelves looking for books or records to sell, you scour the Craigslist "free" section and you save all those 15 percent–off coupons that show up in the mail.

You also like to go out to dinner every once in a while.

Enter Sonoma County Restaurant Week, which annually provides the more economically minded among us an excuse to splurge on a nice night out. With over a hundred restaurants taking part, local diners have plenty of choices for special prix fixe menus at one of three discounted price tiers—just $19, $29 and $39—with each level buying a three-course dinner.

Running from March 18–24, Sonoma County Restaurant Week has a full restaurant list up at sonomacountyrestaurantweek.org. For us, it's a chance to shine a light on some of our local chefs participating in Restaurant Week: John Franchetti from Rosso, Tim Bodell from Rustic, Jack Mitchell from Jack & Tony's, Arturo Cardenas from Caffe Portofino and Claudio Capetta from Cafe Claudio.

Read on and eat away—because this week, you might not even have to raid the couch for it."—Gabe Meline

CURDLED CURIOSITY

John Franchetti, Rosso Pizzeria & Mozzarella Bar

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Quick, think of pizza. The first things that come to mind are dough and cheese, right? Since they've already perfected the dough, when Santa Rosa's Rosso Pizzeria opened a second location in Petaluma, it was time to get cheesy. Inspired by a visit to a cheese bar in Rome, Rosso chef and owner John Franchetti has now brought a little piece of Italy back to Sonoma County.

"I was tasting the different burratas available for purchase, and being the chef that I am, I said, 'I could make this,'" says Franchetti. So, with little training outside of YouTube, and with a lot of curd from water buffalos in Two Rock, Franchetti crafted his own buffalo burrata. The result is an extremely creamy, spreadable cheese with flavor that lingers and teases the tongue long after it's been devoured—a staple of Rosso Pizzeria & Mozzarella Bar in Petaluma.

A recent special of buffalo burrata with a poached egg and black truffle shavings was almost too good, making the trio of traditional burrata, stracciatella and goat cheese with mint ($9) seem almost pedestrian in comparison. Like a big, meaty red wine, it's best to work up to the buffalo flavor monster.

There's nothing wrong with eating only cheese for dinner—especially this cheese. But it would behoove hungry diners to try the new additions to Rosso, which opened its Petaluma location about a year ago. Dinner entrées, formerly rotating specials, are now menu staples. Hearty plates like fried chicken with smashed potatoes ($15) and forever roasted pig with pappardelle ($13.50) are satisfying with or without appetizers.

Rosso shines brightest, of course, with its pizza. "I really try to emulate what happens in Naples," says Franchetti. "The difference is, Naples is really rustic; they just throw their ingredients on there. Americans are used to placed ingredients." It is difficult to find anything wrong with the traditional margherita, made with red sauce, mozzarella, basil and olive oil. More adventurous diners might lean toward the Moto Guzzi, made with smoked mozzarella, Caggiano Italian sausage, smoked olive oil, Swiss chard and slow roasted onions. After a few tries and a little advice, Franchetti started smoking the water used to make the cheese instead of just cold-smoking the cheese itself; the result is a strong flavor that's not overpowering but definitely in charge.

But for a chef who can make just about anything he sets his mind to, Franchetti keeps things fairly simple when it comes to his own preference. "If I need to eat a pizza," he says, "I'm having the pepperoni pizza."—Nicolas Grizzle

THE DIRECTOR'S CHAIR

Tim Bodell, Rustic

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From dishwasher to line cook to culinary manager and chef, Tim Bodell believes that every station not only deserves respect, but presents a potential learning opportunity. "I tell the people that I mentor that you can learn something from everybody, every day," Bodell says. "And if you're not learning something, you're not doing something right. You're not having an open mind."

That's no mere kitchen homily coming from Bodell, who's worked them all, from the bottom up. Growing up in the Philadelphia area, his earliest memories were cooking with his mother. "I always loved food, always loved to cook," he recalls. He wasted no time getting started in the restaurant business as a dishwasher in his early teens. When just 18, he worked with his first "real chef," and after attending culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., Bodell led the itinerant life of a young chef on the move.

"For me, in my 20s, my thing was to always stay for exactly one year and move on. There's only so much you can learn form a mentor, and the learning curve is so dramatic. Every chef has different things to teach you. I wanted to diversify my knowledge."

In 2000, Bodell moved west to work at high-end golf communities, where his openness to learning new things led to a pastime that he didn't know he'd ever even considered: getting in touch with his inner outdoorsman. "I had never hunted until I moved to Oregon and became great friends with a 'good old boy,' a 'redneck,'" he says with a laugh, "who showed me the way."

When he's not spending time with his wife and 14-month-old son, he takes his yellow lab duck hunting or foraging for mushrooms. "For me, there's nothing as gourmet as traipsing around in the mud, coming home and preparing [mushrooms]. It's really something I enjoy."

Meanwhile at Rustic, the restaurant at Francis Ford Coppola Winery inspired by the director's favorite food from both his travels and his memories at the family table, Bodell fine-tunes small-plate wine and food pairings, makes fresh pasta and oversees two sous chefs and "an army" of line cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers. This January, he had the privilege of cooking at the James Beard House in New York City for the second time, representing the winery.

Bodell confirms that Coppola is very involved in Rustic. "I really enjoy working with Francis himself. He's a storyteller, so I really have the pleasure of learning about him, his family and his family recipes."

Naturally, all of this makes Bodell a busy man. On a recent Saturday, the chef was taking a break from a 400-seat lunch rush, plus a wine club event serving 600 members. He had 220 reservations for dinner. "I've been here since 6:30," Bodell says, without a hint of exhaustion. "I'll be here a few more hours. I'm looking forward to that first cold beer, that's for sure!"—James Knight

WHO'S TONY?

Jack Mitchell, Jack and Tony's

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A few years ago, the owners of a building in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square approached chef Jack Mitchell to open a restaurant. He declined. Though interested in a new endeavor, he was still running the popular restaurant Sassafras and had other plans in the works.

"Then I had a dream," Mitchell tells me recently, "and the entire concept came to me. Even the name." And thus was born Jack and Tony's Restaurant and Whisky Bar, named after the chef-owner himself—and his alter-ego.

While Tony's function is mainly auxiliary—the staff enjoys making up stories about him—he does have his own email address and business cards. (Neither of which, apparently, came in handy during his latest kerfuffle, in which he was kidnapped and whisked off to Cancun).

"Tony" may be getting into trouble south of the border, but Jack grew up way north of it, in St. Paul, Minn., where his interest in food started young. "My mom wasn't a great cook," he tells me, "so I'd sneak over to Grandma's house to eat lunch with her." He paid his way through college by working in restaurants, and by the time graduation rolled around, he was cooking in a four-star hotel. So instead of pursuing further education ("Culinary school," he says, "is for people who don't know how to cook"), he continued to move through kitchens around the country.

For eight years, Mitchell cooked fancy French cuisine in Arizona, but, as he puts it, "I was cooking for tourists; I could get away with anything." San Francisco, with its promise of a more "informed clientele," beckoned. In addition to working for the Real Restaurant Group and the Lark Creek Inn, he ran the kitchen at San Francisco's Beach Chalet, which served a thousand tables a day. "It was a great experience," he says, "but ultimately not fulfilling."

Drawn by abundant local produce, Mitchell moved to Santa Rosa. "The last thing this town needed," he recognizes, "was another wine bar." Whiskey might not drive the entire menu at Jack and Tony's, but it certainly has a grip on the wheel. The apple tart, lox, oysters—all of them pair nicely with various gradations of the amber liquor.

With a seasonally shifting menu, the industrious chef—he's cooking a BLT and a cheeseburger, medium well, as we talk on the phone—is unabashed about the quality of his food. "We didn't invent the caesar salad," he says, "but we perfected it."

As for Tony? "We tried to raise the $50,000 ransom," Mitchell deadpans, "but only managed to get about 15 bucks."—Jessica Dur Taylor

FOURTH STREET FINESSE

Arturo Cardenas, Caffe Portofino

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Arturo Cardenas never imagined he'd be head chef at a popular Italian restaurant in downtown Santa Rosa. He grew up in Michoacan, Mexico, and came to California for the first time in the '80s to pick apples and grapes. But he found work in the off-season in the kitchen at Caffe Portofino, and 23 years later, he's got a whole staff calling him "chef."

After learning from the prior chef how to prepare the menu's staples, Cardenas was surprised when the owners wanted to send him to culinary school in San Francisco. ("I didn't even know it was a career," he says. "I just love what I do.") He became sous chef and then, 10 years ago, under new ownership, head chef. "I was free to create new dishes," he says.

Not that the downtown Italian joint has changed much since then. The décor still looks much like it did when Cardenas began his career, and the menu, much to the relief of its fans, hasn't seen too many new additions. Customers enjoy the old favorites so much that Cardenas says he gets complaints when something isn't available. Dishes like penne pasta with chicken and fettuccine pescatore are staples at Portofino—and by all accounts, will always be.

Cardenas brings work home, too, as his nine children enjoy many of the recipes he makes for diners at the crowded restaurant. The oldest, now 23, helps out cooking for the other kids, the youngest of whom is just three. "I leave them instructions on what we're having for dinner," he says. "They make my life a lot easier."

Mom's old saying "This isn't a restaurant, you'll eat what I make" doesn't quite apply in the Cardenas household. The kids can be picky eaters, and the chef, trained in pleasing the customer's palate, often obliges: "People say I spoil my kids because I make them three or four dishes."

The Caffe Portofino model follows the sage advice "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The place is still packed most nights of the week, with homemade pasta, reliable favorites and a friendly staff (bar manager Su Wolfard has been there 25 years). Toss in a prime downtown location, and it's a recipe for success.—Nicolas Grizzle

CLAUDIO'S WAY

Claudio Capetta, Cafe Claudio

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When I call chef Claudio Capetta on a recent Saturday, he's just made some tiramisu, asparagus-stuffed tortoloni and gnocchi in anticipation of the evening's dinner guests. I ask about his signature menu items, and he ticks off dish after dish—veal topped with prosciutto and pepperoni, spaghetti alla carbonara, gnocchi with creamy pesto, risotto del giorno, scampi fra diavolo—and then says, "Nothing major. I just try to cover the whole spectrum of Italian food."

Such nonchalance is befitting of the 72 year-old-chef, who had no qualms about opening a restaurant in a location that's seen more turnover than a rookie basketball game. In less than a decade, the roadhouse bistro at 9890 Bodega Hwy. has been home to such promising eateries as P/30, Cafe Saint Rose and Two Crows—all of which turned off the oven sooner than expected.

"The location doesn't make the restaurant," Capetta tells me, "the person running it makes the restaurant. You can't just open a restaurant because you have the money. You must love it, too."

Capetta obviously loves it. Cafe Claudio is his fourth restaurant in Sonoma County alone. "I used to call my restaurants Claudio's Trattoria or Claudio's L'Osteria, and then my daughter said I must modernize," he says, laughing. "And so I called this one Cafe Claudio. And I got on Facebook and Instagram."

Originally from Liguria on the Genoa Coast of Italy, Capetta ran Claudio's Trattoria in Sebastopol (where Sushi Tozai is now) for a few years before selling it to move down to Santa Barbara. The occasion? His daughter was going off to college.

"My wife and I wanted to be near her," he says matter-of-factly, as though parents routinely follow their kids to college. Years later, he's doing it again, moving to Santa Rosa to be closer to his daughter and two grandchildren. As for Cafe Claudio, it remains as rooted as the patio herb garden and homegrown tomatoes planted out front 20 months after opening.

"I'm not a spring chicken anymore," says Capetta, who is nonetheless embracing the 21st century with aplomb. "But you can find me on Facebook!"—Jessica Dur Taylor

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