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Kathleen Weber, Petaluma bread maker and operator of Della Fattoria, dies of cancer

Kathleen Weber, a beloved Petaluma restaurateur and renowned wood-oven baker who became an icon in the Sonoma County culinary scene as co-owner of Della Fattoria, died Saturday morning. She was 75.

The cause was a “pernicious” type of pancreatic cancer, said her husband of 55 years, Ed Weber. She was diagnosed with the critical illness only two months ago.

A visionary entrepreneur, she operated with her family the popular artisan bread bakery and European style cafe on Petaluma Boulevard, a staple in the downtown corridor for nearly two decades. It’s regarded as one of the top 10 bread bakeries in the U.S. by Bon Appetit magazine.

“She was a great human being and loved by everyone from the first time I met her to just a few hours ago,” her husband said during an interview Saturday. “Loved food, loved baking, loved experiencing, loved talking, loved hosting. She was just a fixture for me for so many years. I’d always had her.”

Weber was born in Santa Rosa on Aug. 27, 1944. She was raised on Sonoma Avenue by a father in the insurance business and a mother that designed costumes for the theater program at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Ed and Kathleen met at the junior college in that very program and were married in 1964. They traveled around the U.S. as actors and embraced the seismic transformation of the American psyche during that era, a time in their lives that helped form the “childish abandon” and progressive spirit Weber embodied until the end, her husband said.

“Rich Sonoma County products was what we were,” he said. “Not rich in money, but in culture.”

She worked in the medical field for several years, as well as the former Mattei Brothers clothing store.

She was first exposed to baking with a wood-burning oven by Ed’s father, a chicken rancher from Germany who used a wedgewood oven to bake breads when they were struggling artists living in his family’s Skillman Lane ranch.

It soon became a hobby she honed into a formidable craft, learning under renowned brick-oven baker Alan Scott, a “bohemian from Tasmania” credited with starting the “bread revolution” on the West Coast, her husband said.

The Webers eventually built their own oven on the ranch using Scott’s blueprints. They baked breads by using retained heat trapped in the brick, which was generated by burned wood swept out once it turned to ash.

She wanted to connect the ranch to the Petaluma community, and by winning over neighbors with this old-school approach, she helped renew the appeal around slow-rise bread.

“We were really the first on the West Coast to commercially produce bread (that way), in a small quantity albeit,” her husband said. “We had a knowing and forgiving planning commission and building department bewildered by our requests to build 6-by-9-foot ovens.”

He said it was “inordinately good luck” that helped vault the floral and eclectic Weber breads from a local product sold door-to-door to a revered staple in the region. A key breakthrough was becoming a bread supplier for world-class chef Thomas Keller when the French Laundry first opened. Keller became a close friend and collaborator.

About 16 years ago, the Webers opened Della Fattoria as a breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch spot. Kay Baumhefner, a longtime friend and former chef of the Opera House Cafe, led the kitchen when in the beginning.

“What a visionary she was, and so strong, creative, and generous in all this,” Baumhefner said. “She was trying to give the community something where her heart was in it. Kathleen had a big heart and always cut to the heart of matters.”

Weber’s son, chef Aaron Weber, began experimenting with a prix-fixe dinner menu about four years ago, digging further into the farm-to-table path his mother had carved out with Della breads. The venture was met with acclaim, and in 2018 the restaurant added a dinner menu.

Last year, Della Fattoria completed a dining hall expansion into the two adjacent properties. Her daughter, Elisa Weber, oversaw the creation of its interior redesign and fabricated the furniture.

Kathleen Weber’s success allowed her to become a published author, writing “Della Fattoria Bread,” a recipe book that sought to make high-quality baking more accessible.

The restaurant now employs more than 60 people, all of whom adored her, said Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association, in which she served as a board member.

“Her staff loved her,” McCusker said. “She brought this amazing business to town, but it wasn’t just a business. It was a family that built an empire.”

Weber was actively engaged in the Petaluma community, recognizing the importance of establishing the city as a desirable tourist location that could stand on its own, and worked for years to achieve that vision.

She served meals to first responders stationed in Petaluma when catastrophic wildfires ravaged Sonoma County. McCusker described her as a “mom to the community.”

Even for those that didn’t know her personally, Baumhefner said Weber had an ability to make strangers feel welcome in Petaluma.

“She may no longer be in that body, but so much of what she did for the community and for so many individuals will always be with us,” Baumhefner said. “We will miss her terribly, but she left us so much to be thankful and remember us for.”

In addition to her husband, Ed, she is survived by her two children, Aaron and Elisa, and her two grandsons, Jakob and Samuel.

Memorial services are still being finalized, but a plan is being developed to hold an open house Saturday at Della Fattoria. The public is invited.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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