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Cox: Success finds a home


The grist mill in Glen Ellen’s Jack London Village, built in the 1830s by General Mariano Vallejo, has a long history of failed restaurants. But its latest incarnation as Aventine Glen Ellen is changing all that.

Since its opening on the Fourth of July, the parking lot has been crammed with cars and the tables inside and out have been full of patrons. Even the mill’s old water wheel is spinning again. The rustic interior, with lots of raw wood, has been nicely spruced up.

Rickety decks around the building have been replaced by generously proportioned sturdy decking overlooking Sonoma Creek. Folks seated there are protected from the midsummer sun by tall trees whose roots, dipping into the creek water, support leafy canopies high overhead. Executive chef Adolfo Veronese, his brother Gian-Paolo and partner Rodrigo Nevado are the owners responsible for the improvements. Adolfo learned about Italian cooking at his father’s restaurant, Osteria Romana, in San Francisco, then continued his education at the Culinary Institute of America in New York before working at a series of successful restaurants including Adolfo’s in San Francisco’s North Beach, Valentino in Las Vegas, and the restaurants of Wolfgang Puck’s Fine Dining Group.

Another thing Adolfo evidently learned is that if you want to ensure success in the restaurant business, think Italian. He and his partners opened Taverna Aventine in San Francisco in 2007, Aventine Hollywood in 2012, and now Aventine Glen Ellen. All three menus feature classic Italian dishes.

The full bar and sports on the large-screen TV help draw customers, as does the corkage policy: no corkage on the first bottle you bring in, as long as it’s not on the restaurant’s wine list. The charge is $15 for each subsequent bottle brought in.

The wine list itself is well chosen, if a trifle confusing. The 2012 Imagery “White Burgundy” is $57 a bottle, about double what you would pay at the nearby winery. But unlike white wine that’s actually from Burgundy, it’s made from pinot blanc and pinot meunier as well as chardonnay. For something to go with your pizza, a glass of Feudo Maccari Nero d’Avola is $9.

The place is well staffed, especially with the young and inexperienced. On a first visit, the waiter went through the menu telling us what he “really, really liked.” Instead, I’d suggest asking the customer what he or she likes and then pointing them to items on the menu that might please them.

The food at Aventine is good Italian aimed at the American palate. For instance, the Aventino ($15 ***) is pricey for an appetizer that’s one meatball the size of a handball sitting on a bed of soft polenta, but it’s delicious, with the ground meat soft and fluffy from the inclusion of mozzarella, pesto, and chopped golden raisins.

A drizzling of intense balsamic vinegar pulled the focus away from the delicate flavors of four sautéed, prosciutto-wrapped jumbo shrimp in the Gamberoni ($17 **) appetizer. The Zuppa del Giorno ($7 **) was pureed parsnip in chicken broth, but somehow the distinctive flavor of parsnip was missing.

Rosso, Verde, e Giallo Insalata ($9 **½) was fresh and coolly crunchy, with red radicchio, yellow Belgian endive leaves, green lettuces, pecan bits and, for the color blue, a small slab of gorgonzola cheese, all in a light lemon and honey dressing.

The wood-fired pizza oven turns out six kinds of pizza. Our table ordered the simple Pizza Margherita ($13 ***), a lovely pie with a very thin crust, melty-stringy mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, and torn shreds of basil leaves. The other five pizzas are elaborate concoctions with ingredients like black truffle honey, toasted hazelnuts, and béchamel.

Lasagna al Forno ($15 ***) was layered with beef, veal, and pork, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, plus béchamel and cinnamon, giving it something of the flavor of a Greek pastitio, the baked pasta dish. And that’s yummy.

Pollo Parmigiano ($24 **½) was a workmanlike dish of breaded, sautéed, cheesed, tomato-and-wine sauced, baked chicken breasts topped with beer-battered fried shallots. Scottodito ($30 *½) was supposed to include kumquats but didn’t. (They were out.) But it might not have mattered, because the meaty flavor was buried under a balsamic mint reduction sauce.

For dessert, three little Cannoli ($7 **½) were cream filled and capped with ground pistachios.

To sum up: Good if not memorable Italian food in a great country setting.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review for the Sonoma Living section. He can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.