Chef Tony Najiola of Central Market in Petaluma is some kind of magician. One minute his Berkshire pigs are oinking their way around their pen, and before you know it, he's transformed them into charcuterie.
But not just any charcuterie. His Butchers Board ($15 ****) is sophisticated rusticity, the kind of country sausage his forebears in Sicily would have made. He pairs coppa, sopressata, and garlic salami with a soft and luscious pork liver pate that just hints at the flavor of liver.
Like everything at Central Market, the accompanying pickles of cauliflower florets, cornichons, green beans, and baby turnips are house made. The plate also contains grilled ciabatta bread, made with organic flour and baked early every morning, like the traditional Italian breads served at the start of dinner.
He raises the pigs on his Muleheart Farm a few miles from town. The farm is strictly organic and supplies not only pork but also eggs from a flock of laying hens and vegetables, plus heirloom Bourbon Red turkeys in the fall.
Many restaurants these days claim to be "farm to table," but Chef Najiola's set-up is the real deal. The results are spectacular.
The restaurant could also have a second motto: "Eat local, drink global." As it says on the wine list, "There is no good reason to limit your pleasures to just two counties." So you'll find reasonably priced bottles from many of the world's great wine regions, plus a slew of California wines, and most selections are organic, Biodynamic, or sustainably farmed. Corkage is $18.
The small bites are no afterthought at Central Market. They're some of the best items on the menu. The chef mixes tiny white corn kernels, which pop when bitten, releasing milk with summer-fresh flavor, with queso fresco to fill two Fresh Corn Tamales ($6.50 ****), then wraps them in green corn leaf and steams them. His penchant for heating things up is found in an accompanying small pot of roasted tomato salsa turned fiery with jalapenos.
While the tamales are fresh and lovely, they're not as fresh and lovely as two right-off-the-vine Squash Blossoms ($6.50 ****) filled with herbed goat cheese, dipped into a light tempura-like batter, and plunged into oil so fresh and hot it leaves no trace of itself when the blossoms emerge a few seconds later. The heat melts the cheese so each bite is at once crunchy and runny. This food makes you feel glad to be alive.
Farm Beets Salad ($9 **) was a generous salad of big, cooked, beet chunks set on a bed of skordalia, which is a Greek garlic and potato spread, topped with arugula and sprinkled over with roasted grapes and toasted almonds. The flavors tried for a group hug, but didn't quite make it.
There's a big, wood-burning pizza oven in the center of the restaurant, and you can choose between a white pizza with shaved potatoes, three cheeses, and white truffle oil, or the Red Pizza ($16.50 ***) topped with sugo, hot Calabrian chilies, goat cheese, and sun-dried olives. When the pie comes out of the oven, arugula is added on top. The crust isn't thin, nor is it thick. It's somewhere in between in a nicely baked, puffy state. You can add some of the excellent salami to your pie for $2 extra.
Resources To Help
North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373
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Sonoma County Psychiatric Emergency Services: 707-576-8181
For information on Sonoma County support groups, call 707-527-6655 or go to namisonomacounty.org