As Negri’s prepares to celebrate its 75th birthday, I have one question: why isn’t this Occidental restaurant busier? Often when I stop in, the bar is crowded, but the dining room has plenty of empty seats among its 20-or-so tables.
Perhaps it’s because Occidental is a tiny, rural town, off the average diner’s routes. Or perhaps because indeed, the place is old— two sets of friends I invited to join me for dinner there recently declined, with comments about the age equaling questionable quality.
Well, then. Aged wines are supposed to be better, right? I myself — ahem –—am getting older, so certainly improving, I can only hope. And, as a popularly cited report from Cornell Hospitality Quarterly notes, around 60 percent of new restaurants fail within the first year, and nearly 80 percent shutter before their fifth anniversary.
So high five to the family-owned Negri’s, which has been faithfully serving delicious, remarkable value Italian food since Joe and Theresa Negri opened it on Bohemian Highway in 1943.
Now dubbed Negri’s Italian Dinners & Joe’s Bar to better showcase the attached lounge and bar, the restaurant has gotten some updates recently. Most dishes served are traditional family recipes, but several more modern dishes are now on offer, like a Hail the Kale salad dotted with sunflower seeds, feta cheese, cherry tomato and lemon vinaigrette ($), and the option for gluten free pasta.
Yet as I dug into a steaming hot bowl of Nonni’s ravioli, I was thinking I’m happy way back in the 40s. The fluted-edge pasta is housemade, generously overstuffed with moist crumbly beef and pork, nicely bitter bits of Swiss chard, fresh herbs and Parmesan. I chose the chunky, well-seasoned Bolognese, among the other marinara, Alfredo or pesto options.
It tasted even better, perhaps, because of the quaint setting. All the cozy touches are there: red and white checked tablecloths, ball lamps painted in Italian flag colors of red, white and green, and, decorating some tables, wax-dripped Chianti bottles. Someone takes loving care of this elderly lady — she is sparkling clean, freshly painted, and this time of year, she boasts lots of Easter theme knickknacks for a personal touch.
Then, there’s the thoughtful pricing. Negri’s bills itself as family style dining, meaning, in this case, that while entrees are per-person, full dinners include shareable servings of minestrone soup, a mixed green salad, antipasto nibbles of marinated peppers, veggies, herbed chickpeas and red beans, a few slices of salami, French bread and butter. Some entrées include a few ravioli, too.
But you can also order an entrée solo, bringing just the sides that usually include fries, mashed potatoes or sautéed vegetables. Some of the entrées are served in the bar, too, for an even lower price. And then, there was one afternoon I stopped in on the way back from an area appointment, craving more of those ravioli. The barkeep asked how many people I was serving, I told her two, and she cheerfully suggested I get an off-menu quart portion, since it would give me a lot more pasta for the money.
Follow along, now: Nonni’s ravioli as a full dinner is $23, as a dining room entrée it’s $16, as a bar entrée it’s $14, and as a to-go quart, it’s $15. I love the flexibility.
Negri's Italian Dinner & Joe's Bar
Where: 3700 Bohemian Highway, Occidental
When: 4 to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
Contact: 707-874-0301, negrisrestaurant.com
Cuisine: Italian, American
Price: Inexpensive to expensive, entrees $12-$30
Stars: ** 1/2
Summary: The humble 75-year-old Italian joint keeps going strong thanks to delicious ingredients, a quaint setting and value pricing.