For pure pleasure, it's hard to beat a seat at one of the tables in front of the Swiss Hotel in Sonoma.
Sit back, relax, enjoy the balmy weather, and watch the fascinating parade of people — mostly tourists at this time of year — strolling by on the sidewalk. Leave the rush to the wait staff that hustles to get your order to your red-and-white-checked tablecloth as quickly as possible.
A cantilevered overhang above you will keep you shaded, even as the sun lowers in the west. Patrons' dogs lounge at their owners' feet or pull at their leashes. It is la dolce vita, Sonoma style.
The hotel resembles General Vallejo's barracks and storerooms a few doors away because it was built by the general in 1850. A plaque set into the hotel's adobe and plaster wall behind you calls the building "California Historical Landmark No. 496." Beside it is a door to the bar that has remained virtually unchanged since 1909.
Inside, there's a more formal dining room, a separate room for banquets, and beyond them, a lovely outdoor patio with a wood-burning pizza oven. The food is mostly casual Italian-American, but not exclusively so. Nightly specials can range over several cuisines, but Italian specialties usually predominate.
The wine list relies heavily on local (Sonoma Valley) wines, but that's a good thing, especially as they are reasonably priced. The 2009 Steele "Sangiacomo Vineyard" Pinot Noir is $45, while the 2009 Domaine Carneros Brut is a steal at $32. Gundlach Bundschu's estate-grown 2011 Chardonnay is $34, the same price as the 2009 Haywood "Los Chamizal" Zinfandel. If you bring a bottle, corkage is $12.
People-watching out front calls for noshing, and our party started with Coconut Prawns ($14, 2-1/2 stars): five prawns dipped in coconut batter are deep fried to a coco-crunchy finish and served with a great, sweet mango chutney. That dish was followed by Wood Oven Baked Meatballs ($9, 2 stars), four golf-ball-sized meatballs rolling in marinara sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, served with grilled sourdough bread. The ground beef had been worked too much, so they were a little dense in texture, but their tomato-cheesy flavor saved them.
The diced red beets in the Roasted Beet Salad ($9, 2-1/2 stars) were joined by baby arugula leaves, red onion, goat cheese with one side turned crusty on a hot pan, and mandarin orange segments. The salad was dressed with a citrus vinaigrette.
The best dish of the night turned out to be the Cannellini Bean, Sweet Sausage and Vegetable Soup ($6.50, 3 stars) on the list of daily specials. It was rich, the flavors were balanced, and the overall effect was, "Hey, this is homemade soup."
That wood-burning oven turns out a good, workman-like pizza crust, with five topping choices available, from minimal (mozzarella, marinara and basil) for $16 to increasingly fancy, such as Number Five with crispy pancetta, grilled pears, cambazola cheese and roasted garlic for $19. We chose Number Two Pizza ($18, 2-1/2 stars), topped with marinara, portobello mushroom slices, mozzarella, sweet sausage and roasted tomato bits.
We wondered if the Rigatoni Bolognese ($15, 3 stars) would use real Bolognese meat sauce (little if any tomato) or simply add ground meat to a tomato sauce (Bolognese in name only). It was classically correct — and perfectly delicious, topped with Parmesan cheese. For an entr?, Oak Roasted Lemon Chicken ($19, 3 stars) had no discernible lemon flavor, but it was incredibly moist and tender and got high marks because of it. It came with sauteed Swiss chard.