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Santi alums keep artisan spirit alive in Wine Country

Liza Hinman, formerly of Santi, is now at Spinster Sisters. (PD FILE)

DIANE PETERSON, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Back in the heyday of Geyserville’s Santi restaurant, from 2002 to 2008, founders Thomas Oden and Franco Dunn were teaching a new wave of driven young chefs the art of “Setting Italian cooking back 75 years,” the motto they had printed on their T-shirts.

The eager, young chefs met each labor-intensive challenge with enthusiasm. Pasta made from scratch? No problem. Homemade bread and bread sticks? Sure, why not? Housemade salumi? Heck yes. And they built an aging room for it.

Kitchen garden? On their days off, they planted one out back and started a composting program. Working with farmers? They not only sourced from the locals, but gave them Italian seeds to plant and told them exactly when they wanted the zucchini harvested.

“We were doing stuff that you couldn’t do,” said chef Dino Bugica, who now owns Diavola in Geyserville. “We grew all our herbs; we did chiles, a winter garden. We’d make smokers for smoked sausage ... These products were fun because, for everybody who worked there, it was all hands on deck.”

The driving force behind this ambitious restaurant, which opened in 2000, was a desire to honor real, authentic Italian food — often known as cucina povera, the soulful and frugal genius of Italian peasants — and to marry it with the best and freshest ingredients from Northern California.

While Santi’s founders laid the groundwork, the young chefs chomping at the bit to prove themselves rode on top of that wave, their youthful energy driving the restaurant into the top echelons of Wine Country cuisine, comparable to the ground-breaking Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

“Chefs Franco Dunn and Thomas Oden created a celebration of the good fresh foods of this region a la Alice Waters, done with an Italian accent,” Press Democrat restaurant reviewer Jeff Cox wrote in 2007, when Bugica headed up the kitchen. “Chef Bugica has taken Santi to the next level. The finest local ingredients are prepared as you might find them in Italy.”

The result was a dazzling array of authentic dishes not available anywhere else in Wine Country, from Trippa alla fiorentina (tripe served Florentine style) to Spaghettini Calabrese (a slow-cooked pork- and beef-rib sauce that was handed down from Oden’s Calabrian grandmother.)

“We were people who really loved to cook, studied it, lived it and wanted to do it in what we thought was the right way,” said Dunn, who served as chef emeritus after general manager Doug Swett bought Santi in 2005. “We never thought of ourselves as being innovative.”

But in hindsight, Santi was actually quite forward-thinking, especially when it opened back in 2000. The restaurant combined hyper-seasonality, farm-to-table sourcing and artisan techniques, long before they became commonplace.

Through long hours and hard work, Dunn and Oden put Santi and Geyserville on the map and, more importantly, spawned a new generation of artisan chefs who spun off with their own highly successful restaurants all over Sonoma County, from Scopa and Campo Fina in Healdsburg to The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa and Diavola in Geyserville.

At the turn of the century, Geyserville was not much more than a ghost town, consisting of a few tractors, some quirky old farm buildings and Bosworth’s General Store. But Oden fell in love with the place, because it reminded him of the restaurants in Italy’s small towns, where people would come to eat from miles around.

Opening a restaurant was a dream for both Dunn and Oden, who had come to cooking later in life. The business partners met while working at Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, and both had spent time cooking in Italy.

“Winery chefs are sometimes overlooked,” Dunn said. “We never wanted to say, ‘We could have been a contender.’”

Dunn and Oden signed a lease for the old Catelli’s “The Rex” space in downtown Geyserville in October 1999, then opened Taverna Santi in May of 2000, naming their new restaurant after Santi Catelli, the Italian immigrant who founded Catelli’s in 1936.

Looking forward while honoring the past was a recurring theme at the restaurant, which quickly gained a reputation for serving old-school Italian dishes utilizing new-school ingredients.

By the time Oden retired from Santi and sold Santi to his general manager in 2005, he had left the restaurant in good hands. The chef, who studied math and psychology at San Francisco State and loved to work with his hands, died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 61.

Bugica, a native of Reno with roots in Tuscany, was one of the first up-and-coming talents to join the Santi team in 2002. He had eaten a tripe dish there with his Italian wife, Sonja, and the experience resonated so deeply that he quit his job at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Maui and signed up as the new pasta chef. Later, he launched Santi’s salumi program.

“I felt like I was another piece of the puzzle, making it even more authentic,” said Bugica, who had cooked all over Italy for 10 years. “Thomas was a Renaissance guy with a brilliant mind who was making his own balsamic vinegar, and I wanted to do that. In Italy ... it’s more about searching out these artisans. At Santi, we all became artisans.”

About six months later, Ari Rosen overheard Oden, Dunn and Bugica talking in Italian while playing pool at the B&B Lounge in Healdsburg. Rosen, who had also cooked in Italy for several years and was working at the Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, went to eat at Santi and signed up with the Santi team. He took Bugica’s place at the pasta station.

“Every day I rolled out two kilos of pasta and cut it,” said Rosen, who grew up in Ukiah and studied psychology at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “Whatever you wanted to do, you could do, but you were going to have to do it yourself.”

Rosen flourished in the pressure cooker of the Santi kitchen, which he described as both collaborative and competitive at the same time. Each week, Oden asked each member of the team to create a special dish for the weekend.

“There was a lot of pressure to come up with something amazing,” he said. “We were given a lot of freedom, and we took that liberty and ran it like it was our restaurant.”

That independence gave each of the young chefs the experience they needed to launch their own restaurants one day — Rosen opened Scopa in 2008, then added Campo Fina in 2012. But it was the sense of family at Santi, and its collaborative spirit, that would also contribute to their future success.

“We had an arsenal of talented people in that kitchen, and each played a role,” Rosen said. “We would take a dish and bring it to the different people to fix it, like a mechanic. That’s what I really loved about working there. You could utilize each person’s talent, and it made for exceptional food.”

To help keep the kitchen running smoothly, Rosen and Bugica recruited a dream team. In 2004, they went after Liza Hinman, who had recently moved to Healdsburg with her husband, Joe. She had cooked at the well-known Bisou and Delfina restaurants in San Francisco but was burned out and needed a break. They talked her into joining the line at Santi a few days a week, and by 2008 — after Rosen and Bugica had left — she was ready to take over the kitchen.

“At the time, we really needed that third person to stabilize us, someone really strong,” Rosen said. “Liza fell into her own at Santi and really blossomed there, not just as a line cook but as a creative power.” In 2012, she went on to open The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa.

For Hinman, who had a degree in history from Middlebury College, the best part of working at Santi was creating the Santi Supper Club, a Sunday night menu offered once a month that featured seasonal and historical dishes from different regions of Italy, such as Nevetti Salad, made with calf tendon, or Bollito Misto, made with boiled meats.

“For me, it was an education in Italian everything,” said Hinman. “They had such depth of knowledge ... Franco liked simple, rustic, honest food. That’s what I still look for in the food we have here at Spinster Sisters. Does it ring true?”

When he opened Scopa in 2008, Rosen also carried a mantra from Santi in his head.

“I kept saying, ‘I want real food, by real people, for real people,” he said. “Pushing the limits on simplicity is one of the hardest things to do, and being comfortable with that.”

Bugica opened Diavola in Geyserville 2008, bringing along his house-cured salumi, handmade pasta and butchering skills along with a natural talent for making authentic, Neapolitan-style pizzas in a wood-fire oven.

But Bugica also has a knack for knowing how to seamlessly incorporate new ingredients into a traditional dish. At Diavola, he created the Dictator Pizza, loaded up with garlic, serrano chiles, kimchi and shichimi (a spicy Japanese condiment) along with marinated ribeye steak, scallions and mozzarella.

“I appreciate the simplicity, but if I go out to dinner and I can cook it, what’s the point?” Bugica said of his more complex cooking style. “Gnocchi with tomato sauce — not very exciting. OK. Let’s dehydrate the tomatoes and bring some life to the dish.”

Although Hinman cooks a wide range of global food at The Spinster Sisters, she often finds herself veering back toward Italy, because it will always be her “core” cuisine.

For instance, she still makes gnocchi, but now she makes it with ricotta instead of potatoes. And she still gravitates toward braised meats, like the lamb dish that always popped up on the Santi menu in the spring, along with fava beans and artichokes.

“We’d go to Bellwether Farms when it was spring, and we’d get the baby lambs,” Bugica recalled. “I just loved how the menu evolved through the whole year.”

After the night shift, the Santi team also evolved into a close-knit family, gathering at each other’s houses to cook together, then sit down to a simple meal with a bottle of wine. Rosen recalls the first time he ate at Bugica’s house.

“It was like going to Italy,” he said. “He had a simple wooden table in the back, his wife had roasted ribs and potatoes in the oven, and it was midnight... Franco opened a beautiful bottle of wine, and we swapped stories about Italy. Then the card games came out, Scopa or Briscola, and maybe we drank a little grappa.”

Soon, the informal get-togethers morphed into monthly parties, with each chef taking turns hosting a dinner with a different theme, often revolving around comfort foods like hot dogs.

“We weren’t afraid to own up to all the comfort foods that everyone loves,” Rosen said.

“It’s all about how well it’s made. When people put their soul into the cooking and you’re starting with good ingredients, you end up with something delicious that resonates in your soul.”

Despite the influx of new talent into Santi, two economic downturns — first in 2001 after 9/11, and then in 2008 after the Great Recession — took their toll on the rustic restaurant located off the beaten track. When its lease was up, Swett moved Santi to Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove Village in April 2010, then closed it for good in the spring of 2011.

“The location and the economy collapsing were not good,” Hinman said.

“But it’s amazing how this restaurant lives on in what we do. People still remember it. It’s still there. One of my line cooks got an interview at Quince in San Francisco because he had it on his resume.”

Dunn, who started making sausage at Santi before creating his own brand to sell at farmers markets, recalls the bygone era of Santi as the best of times, and the worst of times.

“There were lows, when the bills came in ... and soaring highs, when you make this great dish, and people were so ecstatic,” he said.

“It was a great thing. It was all of life, encompassed in the kitchen.”