COX: Unpretentious Catelli's carries on a family tradition in Geyserville

The Olive Garden chain of Italian-style restaurants claims that, "When you're here, you're family." But if you really want a family experience, try Catelli's in Geyserville.

Catelli's has a long history in that town. Santi and Virginia Catelli opened the restaurant in 1936, hanging a sign outside that said Rex. (Santi bought it from a local signmaker who made it to order for a customer who failed to pick it up.) Patrons called the place, "The Rex," and eventually, "Catelli's &amp;&lsquo;The Rex.'<TH>" In 1999, then-owner Susan Hampton moved the restaurant to Healdsburg. The Geyserville building became home to the upscale Santi, which moved to Santa Rosa in 2010. Domenica and Nick Catelli, Santi and Virginia's grandchildren, then re-opened the restaurant in its familiar old spot, simplifying the name to Catelli's.

This outcome has obviously delighted many people. On a recent night, just about everyone who walked in the door was greeted by name and with a smile by Nick Catelli, who runs the front of the house. Domenica is the chef. She's cooking the straightforward Italian-American classics that made the old Catelli's so beloved, and creating these dishes from scratch with local and organic ingredients. She's a national spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association and has appeared on national TV demonstrating healthy cooking, especially for pregnant and new mothers. She's put her knowledge into a book called "Mom-a-licious" and the restaurant's bar even serves a Mom-a-licious Martini made with organic vodka, elderflower liqueur, basil and blood-orange juice.



Domenica is also a recurring judge on "Iron Chef America," and publicity piled up when Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta stopped by for some Italian home cooking. You may know her as Lady Gaga.

The brother-sister team is re-doing the outside patio and back dining room and they'll be ready for warm summer weather. No matter what the outside temperature, though, the vibe in Catelli's is warm, friendly and genuine. And so are the unpretentious and delicious dishes Domenica puts together.

For instance, <CF103>Domenica's Sauce</CF> ($13.95 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) is a pasta dish for which you choose either penne rigate or spaghetti. The sweet-tart sugo is bright in color and flavor, made at this time of year with organic tomatoes canned at their peak ripeness last summer. In late summer, when the local tomatoes come ripe, they'll be used in this fresh sauce. The key ingredient in her special sauce is garlic and lots of it, along with a tempting spiciness.

<CF103>Richard's Meat Sauce</CF> ($15.95 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>), again available either on penne or spaghetti, is a true Bolognese-style sauce — lots of ground beef and not so much tomato, but well-made and robust — named for the Catelli siblings' father, who served a ton of it back in the days of The Rex.

Among the Italian specialties like spaghetti with clam sauce, ravioli, and pasta with a butter and garlic sauce (one the kids will love), is a lasagna with house-made pasta. But not everything is strictly Italian. <CF103>The Ultimate Burger</CF> ($14.50 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>) is a good half-pound of meat that's ground fresh daily, broiled and served on a toasted ciabatta bun. It comes with good skin-on fries, with cracked fresh black pepper that gives the fries a spicy bite and far too much salt. Rib-eye steak and daily fish are also available.

Virginia Catelli's original recipe is used for the <CF103>Minestrone</CF> ($4.50 a cup <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>), and it's more of an old-fashioned bean soup than a mix of vegetables. It has cannellini, navy and garbanzos with potatoes and carrots, oregano and a shake of parmesan cheese in a savory brown soup.

For extra fun, try the <CF103>Beef Meatball Sliders</CF> ($12.95 <UStags><SC12,197><UStags><SC12,197>?). Three mini-meatballs covered in Domenica's special sauce pack an herby, spicy wallop in each bite. Each perches on its own mini bun. Between bun and meatball, one has to open wide to be able to take a bite, but it's worth the effort.

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