With comfort food, Baci Caf?& Wine Bar joins Cena Luna and Scopa to give Healdsburg a trifecta of good Italian restaurants.


Lisbeth Holmefjord has pulled off a neat trick at Baci, her new Italian restaurant in Healdsburg. Just about everyone through the front door was greeted with her hugs, smiles, delighted laughter and warm familiarity on a recent night. The place had only been open for a month, and already regulars were filling it up by 6 p.m.

Baci is Italian for "kisses," and the atmosphere at Holmefjord's restaurant is full of them. The menus are stamped with red-lipstick kiss imprints. Many of those newly minted regular customers were given cheekside air kisses.

All this fondness comes from a lifetime in the hospitality business. She's originally from Norway, where she worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant. From there, she worked in hospitality in Greece, Spain, England, New York, Hawaii and at Sonoma County wineries.

While in Hawaii, she met her husband, Shari Sarabi, who was originally from Iran, and they ran a couple of Italian restaurants. He's now the chef at River Rock Casino and designed the menu and trained the chefs for Baci, while Holmefjord runs the front of the house.

Baci now joins Cena Luna and Scopa to form a trifecta of good Italian restaurants in Healdsburg. Cena Luna hits the high note, with house-made pastas and dishes like chicken breast stuffed with fontina cheese and served with polenta and broccolini. Scopa's menu focuses on solid dishes from Tuscany to Lazio, like grilled prawns with panzanella bread salad. And Baci is Italian comfort food, with homage to northern Italy, Rome, and the Veneto region in particular.

I mention Veneto because I had the self-same Minestrone ($7 ) in Venice, where it was called verdura in brodo. Light and brightly flavored chicken broth contains small diced carrots, celery and potatoes — not too many — cooked al dente. It was a remarkable soup in both places, nothing like the brownish, gray-green, overcooked mishmash that passes for minestrone in too many Italian-American restaurants.

Baci is not Italian-American. It's as Italian as sunglasses, a cup of caff?corretto and a copy of Corriere della Sera at a sidewalk table.

The room used to be the restaurant called Manzanita, and its wood-fired oven now turns out flatbreads, pizzas and calzones.

For pizza, choose between a simple Margherita with roasted tomatoes, mozzarella and basil for $12, the more elaborate Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons) for $15, or Pizza alla Salsiccia ($15 ), where a thin crust pizza is given just a touch of tomato sauce, spicy pork and fennel sausage, lots of sliced mushrooms, and mozzarella to melt and bubble all over it.

These excellent pizzas are made with some restraint — the Italian way — rather than just having a bready crust loaded up with lots of sauce, cheese and whatever other topping is ordered.

Baci serves just the right kind of food to pair with a bottle of Dry Creek Valley zinfandel, although some of the superstar Zins from the Valley are missing from the wine list. (For instance, where's the Rafanelli?)

Corkage is $15 if you bring your own, but is waived if you also buy a bottle. Prices of the wines are very fair, with many in the $20-$30 range. One of Doug Nalle's superior zinfandels — the well-aged 2003 — is $48. A 2008 Saini Vineyard "Old Vines" Zin from Dry Creek is $35. There are tidy selections of Italian reds, such as a 2007 Brunello di Montalcino for $29, and whites, like the 2007 Ca' del Bosco from Lombardy, for $48. A half bottle of 2003 Ardente "Atlas Peak" Cabernet Sauvignon is $25 and suits the cuisine at Baci well.

The low wall of manzanita limbs has been removed so that now the wine bar and dining rooms are more open and airy. There's a side room for private parties.

The color scheme pairs pastel yellow with dark green on the walls above a dark red-brown cement floor. About 20 tables are zinc topped and set with single roses in bud vases.

As you're seated, a server brings a basket of good Italian bread and a bottle of house-brand olive oil made expressly for the restaurant. This is very good oil, with a burst of olive fruitiness up front and a bit of throat-grabbing pungency in back.

It has no trace of rancidity and lacks only the hint of bitterness that marks the best oil.

The axiom about Italian cooking is that it is simple in order for the flavors of the ingredients to shine through.

That holds doubly true if the ingredients are raw, as in the Insalata Baci ($7 ?). It consisted of chopped romaine, carrots, red and green bell peppers, mushrooms, celery, Italian parsley and cucumbers dressed in a light (but salty) balsamic vinaigrette, and it made one feel good to eat its fresh green crunchiness.

If you're eating light, you probably won't get past some of the richer antipasti, like Gamberetti Marinati ($10 ), where five shrimp are marinated in lime, mint and feta cheese, then oiled with good olive oil and grilled.

The combination of citrus, herbs and cheese give the shrimp an intriguing and entirely pleasant funkiness. Or order the Bruschetta ($7 ) and discover this easy appetizer of rustic toast rounds with the perfect degree of crunch topped with a mixture of chopped tomatoes, onion, garlic, basil, parsley and that good olive oil they use so freely at Baci.

Too many Italian restaurants overdo bruschetta, loading big slices of bread with mounds of vegetables. These are more like the ones you find in Italy, with small toasts and a tablespoon of chopped vegetables on each. Here you get five of them and each one is a treat.

The primi piatti manu offers five different pasta dishes, two risottos, a wood-fired oven specialty of the day (polenta with sausage for $16 on a recent night), and potato Gnocchi alla Bolognese ($16 ).

The familiar meat sauce is made from beef, veal and pork ribs slow-cooked until it falls into a shreddy, tomato-y, intensely-flavored sauce that exalts the light and delicate gnocchi. The server will grate parmesan cheese on top if you wish.

The Petti di Pollo ($16 ?) gets praise more for the lovely, al dente vegetables of corn kernels, green beans, carrots, fingerling potatoes and herbs than for the chicken breast that's cut in half, pounded and marinated in lime and saffron before being grilled to dryness.

Keep that chicken juicy and the dish would rate another star. The same vegetables were featured on the plate with veal Saltimbocca ($24 ), a luscious veal cutlet given mozzarella and sage and wrapped in a slice of prosciutto before being pan saut?d and having the pan drippings enriched with veal demiglace.

For dessert, the Panna Cotta ($7 ?) was a tasty custard, but firm rather than shimmery-shaky the way great panna cotta must be. It was topped with fresh raspberries and a berry coulis, with a rich berries-and-cream flavor.

To sum up: An authentic Italian restaurant serving excellent examples of the foods that make Italian cuisine the world's comfort food.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.