To reach the parking lot at Dinucci's Italian Dinners in Valley Ford, you drive down a steep embankment. It's all that's left of the railroad bed that ran from Sausalito to Cazadero more than 100 years ago, when trains carried lumber, farm produce and passengers up and down the Marin-Sonoma coast.
Dinucci's was built as the Depot Hotel in 1908 by the Barboni family of Occidental to provide rooms and meals to the railroad's passengers. Henry and Mabel Dinucci bought the place in 1939 and served family-style Italian dinners. Even after it was sold to the Wagner family in 1968, some of Mabel's recipes continued to be used and are still used today. And truth be told, today the restaurant is a time capsule right out of the 1940s and '50s.
A large mural greets you as you enter the dining room, a picture of a long-ago Sonoma County, with old-growth redwoods, deer, squirrel, a wolf and two small humans, one fishing and one hunting. It was painted by an itinerant artist named Chuck Pool some time in the middle of the 20th century in exchange for a room and meals.
A portrait of John Wayne presides over the back dining room, and the walls are lined with dozens upon dozens of old Jim Beam flasks in all sorts of shapes, from figurines to canteens. Among all the stuff that's been there for many decades is the style of the food. Dinucci's, along with Negri's and the Union Hotel in Occidental, serve the kind of food that brought families out toward the ocean, especially on hot summer days when the water provided natural air conditioning. While Negri's and the Union Hotel have taken some steps toward modernization, Dinucci is pretty much untouched since the old days, and is a trove of memorabilia.
The wine list is a throwback, too. The cheapest bottle among the 30 on the list is a Kenwood White Zinfandel for $16 and the most expensive is a Sebastiani Cabernet Sauvignon for $36. By the glass, 21 of the wines range from $4.50 to $7. This kind of food calls for a modest red, like the Kenwood Vintage Red, with a Sonoma appellation, for $16.
Family style means big helpings in large bowls from which family members help themselves. Each person chooses an entr? -- they range from $18.50 for pan-fried oysters to $23.95 for an 18-ounce porterhouse steak, or prime rib on Fridays and Saturdays -- and with it comes an antipasti plate, Franco-American Bakery crusty white sourdough bread, minestrone soup, green salad with a choice of dressing, and a side of pasta with Bolognese sauce.
These foods are relics of a bygone time. The antipasti plate includes sliced salami, celery sticks, carrot sticks, pepperoncini from a jar, and a kidney bean and chickpea relish bowl in the center. The minestrone, dark and thick, is sweet with tomato and redolent of herbs and vegetables, all cooked for way too long. Hearty, but from a time before the culinary revolution in American cooking hit in the late 1970s and 1980s, when we learned about croissants and sushi and light, fresh vegetable soup.
The green salad had two kinds of lettuce, a cherry tomato, some carrot matchsticks, bits of red onion and peeled cucumber coins. It had the virtue of freshness. A thousand-island dressing was well-made.
There's a group of pasta items not accompanied by the complementary pasta with Bolognese sauce. For Gnocchi ($15.95 ), I chose the pesto sauce, which was a thin and watery version of this classic basil-olive-oil-parmesan mixture. Chicken Cacciatore ($19.95 ), which translates to "hunter style," was a generously proportioned bowl of a half chicken cooked until it fell apart off its bones into a soupy stew of tomatoes and celery.
Veal Parmigiana ($19.25 ) consisted of three very thin veal scallops breaded and fried and given an herby tomato sauce topped with mozzarella cheese. It tasted OK, but it wasn't veal parmigiana, which, as the name of the dish demands, should properly be made with a parmesan cheese.