Sometimes a chef will come up with a dish so good, it alone makes the visit to the restaurant worthwhile. Such a dish is prepared by Chef Mirko Inglese at Risibisi in Petaluma.
He uses Asian sea bass, also known as barramundi. It's a popular sport fish that can live in fresh or salt water and is farmed from the Persian Gulf to Australia and even in the U.S., which harvests 800 tons of farmed barramundi per year. Its flesh is flaky and white, with a pleasantly sweet, fresh flavor. Inglese takes ultra thin slices of filet and arranges them on a plate as a Sea Bass Carpaccio ($9.95 ****). The slices are drizzled with lemon juice and set around with lemon wedges. A large ladle of white rice mixed with minced parsley and enflamed with crushed red pepper is spooned into the middle of the plate, and the whole dish is chilled in the refrigerator. If you order it, the server will bring a black pepper grinder so you can pepper this refreshing, cold dish to your satisfaction.
The first thing you'll notice when you enter Risibisi is the bar. Its top is a large piece of yellow-orange onyx with lighting underneath that makes a Creamsicle-colored glow. One brick wall and one plain wall hung with drapes pulled back to reveal a huge mirror complete the d?or - except for the row of children's chairs hanging from the south wall ceiling.
This decorative mashup doesn't extend to the kitchen, where the food is very northern Italian, except for special cooking classes, which may feature foods from other regions of Italy. To augment the Italian dishes, Risibisi carries one of the better Italian wine lists in Sonoma County. A 2009 Arneis would pair well with that fish carpaccio. It and a 2008 Barbaresco both hail from Piemonte. Two Barolos are too young to bother with, but a 2009 Aglianico from one of the lesser producers in Campania for $44 might be just the thing. A reserve red list has very expensive treasures, like a 2001 Sandrone Barolo for $240 and a 1967 Bertani Amarone for $495. Corkage is $15.
A daily dinner special for $14.95 is soup or salad plus entree, served from 5 to 6 p.m.
There's always a soup on the menu. On a recent night it was a cup of Pureed Minestrone ($4.50 **), which seems to be a good way to use up leftover vegetables. It had a fine flavor of beans and cooked vegetables in a meat broth, a smooth texture and a dark ochre color.
Caesar Salad ($8.95 * ?) was one of those faux Caesars with chopped romaine lettuce and a thick, creamy dressing that carried a slight flavor of anchovies. The waiter explained that "there are no anchovies on top of the salad because there are plenty in the dressing - it's very Italian." First of all, there are no anchovies at all in a classic Caesar and secondly, it was invented in Tijuana, Mexico, not Italy (although by an Italian chef). Why not call it what it is: a chopped romaine salad? The dish was topped with a round, crisp frico or cheese crisp made of grated grana padano cheese dropped onto a hot griddle until it bubbles into a lacy wafer.
Chef Inglese knows how to make a Fritto Misto ($10.95 **?), a "mixed fry" of calamari rings, baby squid and jumbo prawns served with lemon and tartar sauce, and it's nothing you haven't had before at many Italian restaurants. Still, it was simple, crispy, cooked in clean oil, and entirely okay. Exciting? No. Well made? Yes.
On a recent night, the risotto of the day was Risotto with Veal Ragu ($14.95 **?). The veal ragu with its meat, tomatoes and parsley was a savory sauce, but the rice was still a little chalky. The secret with risotto is to take the rice off the flame when it still has a barely noticeable hardness in the center of each grain, which softens as the risotto sits before serving. But the timing has to be impeccable - too soon and the grain still has its hard center, too late and it turns to soggy mush. Here it was probably just a minute too soon.
In my experience traveling in Italy, the food was a revelation. At Risibisi, the food evokes that revelation. For instance, Pollo al Mattone ($18.95 **) is the Italian name for chicken cooked "under a brick," or under a heavy weight. I've had this dish in Italy, and the bird comes splayed out flat on the plate from its time under a weight on a hot griddle. At Risibisi, the half chicken was tender and juicy, but didn't look like it had been squished at all.