Cox: More than great pizza at Rosso

It's been a soccer fest at Rosso in Santa Rosa lately, what with the World Cup and all. But then again, it's always a soccer fest at this popular pizzeria and wine bar. The big, flat-screen TV above the back bar is permanently tuned to the soccer channel.

Owner Kevin Cronin and chef-owners Gesine and John Franchetti have always been ambitious. What started seven years ago as Rosso at a single location in the Creekside Center off Montgomery Drive has now become three Rossi, as the Italians would call more than one Rosso. Besides the original location, there's a Rosso in the Theater Square in Petaluma and the newest venue at 1229 N. Dutton Ave. in Santa Rosa, where Sassafras used to be. The latter location serves breakfast and lunch, with the dining room reserved for private events from 6 p.m. on.

From the start, and to date, the menu was and is full of happening dishes that should remain forever. The piadina is a good example. This flatbread of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy is filled with meat, cheeses, or vegetables, or with sweet fruit or chocolate-y Nutella, and sold as street food. Three kinds of piadina include a Caprese with house-made mozzarella; a Bari made with mixed greens, roasted garlic, mozzarella, kale and horseradish-laced cr?e fraiche; and Caesar with chopped romaine, Caesar dressing and Calabrian chilies. Each of these is a mouthful of good eats.

Pizzas are made in Rosso's wood-fired oven and are darn near perfect. The Margherita ($12.75 ***-1/2) is a 12-inch pie cut into four big pieces. The perfect crust is swirled with tomato sauce, topped with house made mozzarella and threads of fresh basil and drizzled with McEvoy olive oil. Other pizzas include: Sicillia, a white base with prosciutto; Salumi, a red base with cured meats; Funghi di Limone, white base, with roasted mushrooms and finished with lemon-flavored olive oil and fresh thyme; Breve Short Rib, red base, braised short rib meat, and aged cheddar cheese; Portabello, red base, with the eponymous mushroom, fontina and blue cheeses, preserved lemon, and fennel-infused olive oil; and the throaty Moto Guzzi, named for the famous Italian motorcycle, white base, house-smoked mozzarella and spicy Italian sausage.

To wash down all this flavor, there are wines from around the world, many available in 6-ounce pours, 250 ml, 500 ml, and full 750 ml bottle. Corkage is $10 if you bring your own. Examples: 2011 Mackie Family Zinfandel, Bennett Valley, $34; 2011 Torbrek Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia, $39; 2012 Elena Walch Lagrein from Italy's Alto Adige, $30. The bar also has a fine selection of craft beers and non-alcoholic drinks like spritzers.

If there were no other reason to visit than to see Sheryl Chapman's fun, stylish paintings on Rosso's walls, it would still be worth going. But there are other reasons, such as two Meatballs ($8 ***), each the size of a tennis ball, made with ground pork and veal and served in a rich, intensely-flavored, slightly spicy tomato sugo, all sprinkled with basil threads.

The chefs have reinvented the Caprese Salad ($6.50 small ***), which is usually sliced tomatoes topped with mozzarella, basil, olive oil and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. This one was a luscious bowl of homegrown tomato quarters, mozzarella shavings, wiggly shoelaces of julienned cucumber, mint, basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

The night's Salumi ($6 **?) was six slices of rich, meaty and spicy Hobbs' coppa with no accoutrements like olives, bread, or toast, which would have made a nice antipasto.

A big plate of Fried Chicken ($20 **-1/2) disappeared fast, it was that good. Half a Petaluma chicken is de-boned, marinated in buttermilk, dredged in rice flour and fried, then accompanied by potato slices in a white sauce of cream and diced scallions, then sprinkled with bits of pancetta coated with a sweet-and-sour Italian, boiled-down, sugar-and-vinegar syrup called agrodolce.

Rosso serves no desserts.

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