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FOURTH STREET FINESSE
Arturo Cardenas, Caffe Portofino
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 Capetta, Cafe Claudio
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