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Cox: Warm and welcoming dining

  • Panna Cotta is served at Baci Cafe & Wine Bar in Healdsburg on Wednesday, November 27, 2013. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Of all the fine restaurants in Healdsburg, the one with the warmest, most welcoming vibe is undoubtedly Baci Caf?& Wine Bar.

The husband and wife owners are the source of this affability. Executive Chef Shari Sarabi is originally from Iran and Lisbeth Holmefjord, who runs the front of the house, is originally from Norway. They met in Hawaii where Sarabi had an Italian restaurant, also called Baci, which Holmefjord frequented. Baci — Italian for "kisses" — were evidently shared along with the pasta, and the couple married and had three sons.

How sweet. And this warmth spills into the restaurant. You can feel it. The wood-fired oven blazing in the heart of the room sums it up.

Baci Cafe & Wine Bar

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Italian cuisine is the most popular in the world, according to John Mariani, Esquire magazine's food critic, which is reason enough for an Iranian chef to serve it, but Chef Sarabi has done Persian cooking at Baci for special occasions, and folks looking for something deliciously different might consider signing up for Baci's emails on the website for notifications of such occasions.

The wine bar features a nice selection of Italian reds. A 2003 I Saltari amarone for $59 is a bargain. Most of the list, though, is devoted to local wines, especially from the Dry Creek Valley. Gustafson, Ramazzotti, Flanagan and Mueller wineries are featured. Corkage is $15, waived for one bottle if you also order a bottle from the house.

The menu is full of Italian cuisine's greatest hits, such as the Burrata ($14, 2-1/2 stars). This one is not the traditional pouch of mozzarella filled with cream that spills out when cut, but rather the fresh mozzarella is mashed with cream and divided into three portions. Three toast rounds topped with braised leeks and pancetta get portions of the burrata. The soft, creamy cheese in turn is turbo-charged with more intense flavors by toppings of pesto and sun-dried tomato. The Italians are so lavish in the sensuousness of their food.

Very few restaurants serve the classic Caesar Salad ($10, 1 star), nor does Baci. This salad mixes so much overly thick and creamy dressing, bland parmesan shreds and herbed croutons with chopped romaine that it loses the light and delicate charm of a true Caesar.

The five pieces of grilled rustic bread called Bruschetta ($8, 3 stars) elaborate on the classic appetizer with the addition of onions and parsley to the Roman version of diced tomato, garlic, basil and extra virgin olive oil, and with delicious effect. Bruschetta can be as simple as grilled bread with garlic and oil, but Baci's version fills the mouth with flavor.

Chef Sarabi makes a weekly menu of specials. On a recent night there were eight, including a Pizza con Pepperoni ($22, 3 stars) that would prove the mettle of that wood-fired oven. The thin crust was flexible rather than crisp, and topped with a load of gooey goodness: rich sugo, sliced button mushrooms, pools of melted mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, and best of all, Fiorucci pepperoni, the best selling pepperoni in Italy. Yes, it's expensive, but you get eight slices at $2.75 each.

Spaghetti alla Bolognese ($20, 3 stars) presents you with the real thing — actual slow-cooked Bolognese sauce made from American Wagyu beef, veal and pork rib meat without all the tomato many places mistakenly use. Risotto di Mare ($26, 2 stars) had the virtues of rich saffron flavor and tender deep sea scallops and calamari, but the shrimp had their tails on, which required prying them off with a knife and fork or dipping fingers into the gooey sauce.


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