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SUGO TRATTORIA

Where: 5 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma

When: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner 5 to 9 p.m. daily except

Sundays, when the restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Reservations: Call 782-9298

Price range: Moderate, with entrees from $10 to $17 Website:

www.sugopetaluma.com

Wine list: **

Ambiance: **

Service: ***

Food: ***

Overall: ** 1/2

====================================

****Extraordinary

***Very good

**Good

*Not very good

0Terrible

Back in the early 1990s, Joe and Lori Shea owned and operated Caffe Giostra in Petaluma, a very popular trattoria in the Orchard Supply Hardware shopping center serving excellent, home-style Italian food.

"Giostra" is Italian for merry-go-round, an appropriate name for a trattoria that spun off several other restaurants that have since brightened the Petaluma food scene.

And it's all in the family.

When they left Caffe Giostra, the Sheas sold it to Lori's brother, Ed. After five years living in Arizona, they returned in 2005 to Petaluma and opened another trattoria, Sugo, at 5 Petaluma Blvd. S.

When space opened in the town's new Theater District in 2008, they gave the reins of Sugo to Lori's daughter, Annette, and her husband, Pete White, and opened Blu at 140 Second St.

Now the Sheas are moving on again, and they've turned Blu over to John Slowik, Lori's oldest son. Sonoma County residents can only hope the Sheas keep moving and sowing Petaluma's idle storefronts with such good restaurants.

But let's return to Sugo -- Italian for sauce -- where Annette is the dinner-time chef and Pete makes the lunches. How's that place doing?

The theme is good, honest Italian food. Annette's mom, Lori, was born in Tuscany, and obviously has passed her cooking skills to her daughter, who in turn claims it all comes from her Tuscan grandmother. One bite of her Ever-Changing Ravioli ($15 ****) convinced me. Each night, Annette decides what kind of ravioli she'll make from scratch. On a recent night, the filling was a mixture of prosciutto and several kinds of earthy mushrooms like shiitakes, morels and criminis, ground together with condiments and surrounded by home-made ravioli dough. These are large, 5-by-5-inch raviolis, and you get five of them in a rich cream sauce. The freshly-made dough melts in your mouth, and the creamy sauce carries the savory flavors of the filling to your taste buds on a velvet tide.

If you like home-made pasta with its melty quality rather than the firmer texture of commercial, dried pasta cooked al dente, opt for the tagliatelle, pappardelle or gnocchi dishes on Sugo's menu. They are all made in-house.

The room is decorated simply with a large open space on two levels, a black ceiling with a skylight, an open kitchen in the back of the room, cold case for beers and white wines, pictures of breeds of fancy chickens, and a large blackboard with wines chalked on it. In a fancy touch, you can spot Marilyn Monroe and other stars of bygone years dancing around above the kitchen, as old movies are projected on the wall there.

The wine list is small and modestly priced. The most expensive bottle is $36 for a 2006 Lake Sonoma "Alexander Valley" Cabernet Sauvignon. You can buy your wine by the 6-ounce glass, terzo (equal to a third of a bottle), or by the bottle. Wine glasses are generously proportioned at 16 ounces. A smooth, fruity 2008 Chianti DOCG from Tiziano in Tuscany is just $27 a bottle, as is a 2008 Septima Malbec from Argentina. Corkage is $12. On Tuesdays from 5 to 9 p.m., all tapas and glasses of wine are $5 each.

Dinner makes a promising start with a basket of Italian bread and large cruets of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The promise is soon dashed, as the olive oil is of indifferent quality. With her Tuscan heritage, Annette must know that good oil shows a pungent, peppery character.

The classic southern Italian salad called Panzanella ($8 ***) put the food back on the right track. The basic idea is to mix toasted cubes of Italian bread with perfectly ripe tomatoes and lots of garlic, and then add anchovies, bell peppers, cucumbers and onion. At Sugo, the recipe is tweaked to include toasted ciabatta, and along with the tomatoes, onions and red peppers are pine nuts, spinach, basil and mozzarella -- all shining with a coat of olive oil.

With deference to Italian-American cuisine, the menu offers a

Bowl of Meatballs ($7 *** ) as an appetizer. You get three beefy meatballs in a rich, tomato-y sugo, with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese and basil threads on top.

The Bruschetta ($7 for 3 ****) at Sugo are the best around. There are nine types to choose from. Of the three I chose, the first was classic tomato, pesto and basil piled high on a long oval of oiled toast. The second was an irresistible combination of tangy olive tapenade and lumps of snowy white, fresh goat cheese. And the toast of the third was smeared with sweet mashed figs, topped with melted Brie, which in turn was topped with crumpled pinches of thinly sliced prosciutto.

Sugo offers three risottos -- butternut squash with pine nuts and sage, seared scallop with mushrooms and asparagus, and Italian Sausage Risotto ($12 ***) with mushrooms, spinach and a spicy tomato cream sauce. The Arborio rice was cooked through and soft from the sauce and its cooking broth, the sausage was laced throughout the dish in chunks, and shreds of Parmesan cheese were sprinkled on top. The dish was garnished with basil tips that had some blackened leaf edges. I know the kitchen is busy, but the unappetizing black leaves should have been removed.

Basil tips from the same bunch were used to garnish an otherwise lovely Ricotta Gnocchi ($13 ***). Each of the gnocchi melted softly in the mouth, with its delicate pesto-cream sauce adding a resinous cinnamon note and creamy texture.

Penne pasta in a red sauce formed a bed under Chicken Parmesan ($15 ** 1/2 ). A chicken breast was flattened, breaded, saut??ed to a golden brown, and laid atop the penne. Melted mozzarella covered the chicken. It all tasted wonderful, but there were two problems: the chicken was overcooked and became too dry, and the mozzarella became chewy from its heating and cooling.

The dessert called Affogato ($5 **) would ideally be made with a scoop of vanilla gelato covered with a shot or two of freshly made espresso and topped with a spoonful of whipped cream. This is the no-nonsense version, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream drowned in espresso (affogato is the Italian word for "drowned"). Most Panna Cotta ($6 **) is unmolded to stand alone and quivering on a serving plate. This lemon-flavored one is made in a glass cup and served unmolded, with a delicious blackberry-orange syrup and four ripe blackberries on top. The custard itself was more thick and dense than quivery.

To sum up: Simply put, Sugo could very well be the best food in town for the money.

Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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