Eddie’s Kitchen in Santa Rosa dishes up ‘saucy’ comfort food
After 30 years of Italian cooking at neighborhood restaurants throughout the Bay Area, chef Eddie Robles has learned a thing or two about sauces. No. 1: the creamier, the better. No. 2: the more, the better.
Old-school Italians could loudly protest those assertions. In Europe’s Italia, many “creamy” sauces don’t include heavy cream, just lovingly, achingly slow-mixed cheese with starchy pasta water, butter, eggs or olive oil.
And most traditional Italian dishes spare the sauce. As with bread and butter, the pasta or protein should be the star. There should be just enough sauce — or sugo — to lightly coat each bite of the main ingredient.
While Wine Country has many different styles of Italian restaurants, Robles long ago found his niche in what he calls “saucy” comfort, American-style fare. And with his new Eddie’s Kitchen, which opened in January in downtown Santa Rosa, he delivers that same delicious stuff his core of regulars demand.
“In Italy, the food can be a little dry,” he said. “Here, people like food richer, with lots more sauce. If we try to do it like they do in Italy, customers ask for more sauce, more tomatoes, more ingredients. My chef friends from Italy tell me, ‘Don’t put on too much sauce,’ but then our customers will ask for more on the side.”
Personally, my favorite style of Italian food is simple: I love all of it. Sometimes I crave the “real deal,” with sauces served more as an uncluttered condiment. Other times, I want bowlfuls of sauce, with excessive butter and cream. Particularly in this endless winter of storms and skin-biting windy chill, I often joke about my beloved steamy-hot sauces and gravies as a “sippy-cup” experience.
For Robles, the answer these days is to offer both styles, thank you. His career began in Americanized Italian, at Santa Rosa’s iconic Villa restaurant, which shuttered last August after 46 years of serving loyal guests spaghetti and meatballs. He took his first cooking job there in 1994.
After moving to Redwood City five years later for another Villa project called Arrivederci, he returned to his family in Santa Rosa in 2003 to work at Healdsburg’s then-popular pasta and pizza joint, Felix and Louie’s (from the owners of the former Bistro Ralph). For the past 18 years, he’s worked at Lococo's Cucina Rusticana in downtown Santa Rosa, finessing finer dishes such as risotto with scallops and truffles.
At his fledgling restaurant, his menu encompasses both classic creamy fettuccine Alfredo, with silky sauce that nearly swims in the bowl ($17), and delicate angel hair pasta lightly kissed with sliced garlic, olive oil and chile flakes ($16). I eat both with equal gusto.
His spaghetti carbonara ($22) is for purists, dressed in crispy-fatty pancetta, egg, lots of black pepper and whisper-thin shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s lovely, the made-to-order sauce velvety and balanced against the nuttiness of the al dente pasta, the spiciness of the peppercorns, the salty pork and the sharp cheese.
(Legend has it that the dish became popular with American officers after the Allied forces’ liberation of Rome in 1944. They took the recipe home with them and, depending on whom you ask, ruined it.)
“Some people expect cream here, but we do it like in Italy,” Robles said. “You have to mix and mix the eggs and parmigiana until it’s nice and creamy. It takes extra time, though, and some chefs don’t want to work that hard, so they add cream instead.”
Fettuccine alla Diavola is topped with seared prawns and scallops and takes a twist with a sweet, smoky tomato Marsala wine sauce you’ll want to sop up with the complimentary focaccia ($29). My standard go-to of chicken parmigiana is homestyle satisfying, too, the pounded, breaded chicken oven baked with plenty of tomato sauce and melted mozzarella alongside mashed potatoes and sauteed zucchini ($25).
Robles makes his own wild boar sausage for a signature risotto dish, the rice studded with diced tomatoes and mixed forest mushrooms ($29). And a green bouillabaisse brings an inventive, lush broth brimming with restorative, belly-warming character. The secret is lots of green vegetables, including bell peppers, spinach, zucchini, celery and microgreens supporting the prawns, scallops, clams, fish and calamari. (Seafood, as species are available, comes mostly from the Tides Wharf Wholesale Seafood in Bodega Bay).
It’s possible to get non-Italian fare at Eddie’s Kitchen, if that’s your thing: blackened Cajun rib-eye ladled in port butter sauce ($45) or sashimi tuna drizzled in mango ginger sauce with micro greens and homemade chips ($16). Or a plate of three beer-battered Australian sea bass tacos sprinkled with chipotle, cabbage and tomatillo salsa ($16).
Why? Because that’s what customers want, and Robles aims to please. However, expect the menu to evolve as he reinvents the former Sizzling Tandoor space on Mendocino Avenue near Fifth Street. The interior has significantly transformed with an open, airy dining room and a small bar area near the front.
“My kids are growing up — they need this place for themselves,” he said of his son, Kenji, 32, and daughter, Brenda, 31, who both help at the restaurant and share their ideas.
The two have been working in hospitality since they were 16 and are eager to take on the business should Robles ever retire. Yet, is he thinking of it after so many decades in the kitchen?
“Oh yeah,” he said. But then, he laughed and shook his head. “Not really. Not yet.”
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at email@example.com.