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.