There’s an unwritten rule that professional restaurant critics give their review subjects two months before visiting, to let the chef and staff work out the inevitable opening hiccups.
Certainly, I stop in pretty quickly after a place opens to get a feel for a potential new hotspot. But I don’t write a public analysis until returning again later.
So I’ll start out by saying that Pinoli Cucina Rustica has been serving dinner at Applewood Inn of Guerneville since May. A small fire beset a downstairs area of the Inn in July, but the restaurant was not greatly affected. Set in the former, oh-so-sadly-short-lived Revival space, it has great bones, with its wood floors, bare wood tables, white walls, metal wheel chandeliers and a balcony patio overlooking a flowering, fountain-burbling garden.
A notable chef is in charge, Christian Darcoli, an Italian-born, European-trained talent who also owns another Pinoli Ristorante in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This is no absentee operation, either — he moved to Wine Country to oversee his new baby, and is hard at work making fresh pastas daily and, as my server told me, traveling to Point Reyes to hand pick perfect peas from a friend’s family farm.
Several of the same dishes appear on both Pinoli menus – the apple, goat cheese and arugula salad, for example, plus the pappardelle draped in rabbit ragu and porcini mushrooms, and the branzino dressed with capers, olives and arugula. Which just means, cooking the chef’s personal classics here should be a slam dunk.
And yet, through several visits, I’ve been waiting for those opening gasps to subside, with no luck. This place still feels like a work in progress, run by a crew with in-training jitters.
When it’s good, it’s quite nice. The kitchen celebrates the resort’s on-site garden, bringing pretty bites like one evening’s special of homemade ravioli stuffed with sheep ricotta, borage, zucca flower and braised herbs, then bathed with butter, Parmesan and sage ($25). Some details are thoughtful, like one evening’s amuse bouche in an appetizer-size portion of two slabs of zucchini tart speckled with barley and held together with a bit of tangy cheese for dredging in thick sundried tomato puree.
I really like the fontina stuffed grape leaves, a fat, tangy pack that’s grilled and scattered with sliced, grilled grapes and a drizzle of dark, sweet vincotto ($12). Guazetto clams get a pleasing, Mediterranean update with fregola (small, Sardinian semolina pasta) and zucchini in a mild clam broth ($18). Liberty duck breast, meanwhile, is a success, pan-seared until the skin is brown and crispy, then glazed in a butter-rich sauce of Late Harvest white wine and fresh berries all served over garlic-studded farro.
But bread (free on one visit, then $3 on another), is oddly presented in a small, brown paper bag-wrapped basket and filled with small squares of fluffy, forgettable this-and-that with more sundried tomato puree.
Then, Alaskan halibut was cooked to dry blandness one night, doused in a thick, overly sweet vinegar sauce with mushy eggplant ($28).
So I understood as I overheard a couple at a table next to me grumble on a recent evening, comparing an unhappy experience with seared tuna ($20) dressed in plum, celery and “way too much balsamic,” against a “fine” hand cut fettuccine ladled with rock fish in a garlicky puttanesca stew ($20).
Pinoli Cucina Rustica
Where: 13555 Highway 116, Guerneville
When: 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. nightly
Contact: (707) 604-7609, pinoliwinecountry.com
Cuisine: Mediterranean, Italian Price: Expensive, entrées $20-$30
Summary: Pastas are handmade, and produce comes from the restaurant’s on-site garden. In an unusual twist, cooks also act as servers, to uneven effect.