It’s been five and a half years since Cucina Paradiso moved from the Golden Eagle Shopping Center in Petaluma to the town’s main drag, Petaluma Boulevard North.
In its new and larger quarters, it acquired a license for a full bar. Owners Dennis and Malena Hernandez tastefully refurbished the room and decorated the walls with paintings of the Italian countryside. Many of the staff came with them, including real Italian waiters and cooks in tall toques — and, most importantly, so did their loyal customers.
Longtime customers are greeted with hugs, “buona seras” and typical Italian demonstrations of warmth and welcome. On a recent night, the place was just about filled by 6 p.m. and the restaurant was abuzz with good energy.
But good vibes alone aren’t the reason the room is packed. It’s the food. Dennis Hernandez learned Italian cooking from Chef Vincenzo Cucco at Bacco in San Francisco, and he in turn was trained at the famous Istituto Alberghiero Di Stato in Cefalú, Italy. As you may know, dining in Italy can be a peak culinary experience, so that commitment to perfection has been handed down to Cucina Paradiso.
The restaurant has invested heavily in Italian wines. The extensive wine list includes local bottles, but its charm is in the Italian wines, arranged by region — Piemonte, Toscana, Veneto, Sicilia, Campania and Umbria — and augmented with a section called Private Reserve of well-aged and ultra-premium bottles. But you don’t have to spend lavishly; a glass of pure and lovely Masi Campofiore from the Veneto is $10 and, if sipped thoughtfully, will last the whole meal through.
As if yummy food and exotic wines weren’t enough to draw crowds, add reasonable prices. No wonder so many customers turn into regulars.
Yummy is the operative word for an antipasto called Polenta Gratinata ($7.50 ★★★), soft and creamy polenta infused with a variety of savory-salty Italian cow and sheep milk cheeses and studded with sliced button mushrooms. Another antipasto is one of the best bargains in the county: Cioppino alle Cozze e Vongole ($9.95 ★★★). A bowl of eminently slurp-able tomato broth contains six fat, fresh mussels and an equal number of cherrystone clams.
Insalata Paradiso ($10.95 ★★★ ½) was as lovely to look at as it was to eat. A bunch of spring-mix greens formed the center of a rosette decorated with Point Reyes blue cheese crumbles, red onion bits and roasted almonds. Belgian endive leaves rayed outward, interspersed with thin slices from a perfectly ripe peach. The dressing is a restrained touch of balsamic vinaigrette. Like all the vegetables here, everything is organic.
The soup of the night was Cream of Tomato ($6.95 ★★★ ½) that tasted of high summer tomatoes fresh off the vine, enhanced by a spoonful of Dungeness crab meat and a bit of basil leaf.
Among the 11 primi piatti, or pasta dishes, our table chose the house-made Tagliatelle con Tartufo Nero ($21.95 ★★★), a reasonable price considering the pasta noodles were loaded with black truffle shavings, making the dish redolent of the forest floor deep in a northern woods. It was dressed in a simple butter sauce to avoid interfering with the earthy aroma of the truffles.