Riccardo Cattaneo, left, tastes Barbed Oak Vineyard wine brought in by vineyard owners Ed and Barbara Pascoe, at Trattoria Cattaneo, in Santa Rosa, Calif., on September 24, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Where the locals love to dine

In every town, there are little restaurants on side streets or in strip malls that don't even try to aim for the high-end, out-of-towner clientele.

These local favorites often appeal to people who live or work nearby, offering a comfortable living room away from home, a place to stop and meet with friends after work.

All customers are welcome, of course, and lucky tourists who happen to find their way into one of these slightly out-of-the-way favorites will be glad they did.

But these gems — informal, unpretentious, inexpensive and always friendly — are primarily an extra perk for those of us who live here. And each of them has an ardent following.

Here's a closer look at four local favorites: Trattoria Cattaneo in Santa Rosa, Frank & Ernie's Tavern in Healdsburg, Pete's Henny Penny in Petaluma and the Breakaway Caf?in Sonoma.

At Trattoria Cattaneo in Bennett Valley's Annadel Shopping Center, you're always treated like a regular, even if you're eating there for the first time.

And when you leave, owner Riccardo Cattaneo may follow you out to the sidewalk and thank you for your business.

"I have a couple hundred regular customers," said Cattaneo, whose Italian father was in the wine business. "That's how I made it for the first few years."

With parents hailing from all over Italy — Genoa, Piedmont, Sicily and Verona — Riccardo comes by his hospitality naturally.

But he also honed his skills as a server and bartender at such landmark eateries as the Washington Square Bar & Grill and Moose's in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood.

Back in Trattoria Cattaneo's kitchen, his wife, Julie, cooks up a wide range of home-style Italian dishes, from her signature Linguine Carbonaro to Gnocchi with Creamy Gorgonzola Cheese Sauce.

The chef is also known for her hearty soups and salads, along with delicious desserts like tiramisu, often served with a glass of dessert wine.

While the portions are generous, the prices are affordable. It's possible to eat a big bowl of pasta with a glass of wine and still get out for $20, with tip.

The gregarious Riccardo often mans the small but popular bar up front, greeting his regulars, opening wine and making sure everyone is happy.

Since he tends to pour with a heavy hand, that's not hard to do.

"I honestly believe in a good pour because we are in a local area," he said. "And I believe you have to give to receive."

If you go on a Friday night, be prepared. The dining room fills up fast, and with neighbors and friends talking from table to table, the noise level can rise quickly.

"It's a neighborhood trattoria," Riccardo said. "And everybody knows everybody."

Trattoria Cattaneo is at 2700 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa. 542-9050. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Mondays through Fridays and dinner on Saturdays.

— Diane Peterson

Tucked away in a small shopping center just off Healdsburg Avenue just a block off Healdsburg's Plaza, Frank & Ernie's Tavern offers a casual change of pace.

Housed in one big room with dark-wood tables, a full bar and a high red ceiling, the cozy little pub offers a casual oasis for regulars and travelers alike, complete with two pool tables and six flat-screen TVs.

"The place has really captured the 'locals' feel. It has become one of the 'go to' local restaurants that serves great food at a reasonable price," said one of its frequent fans, Jim Morris, general manager of MacPhail Family Wines in Healdsburg.

"You can count on bumping into at least a couple of your neighbors there. The bar is quietly becoming one of the best watering holes around," Morris said.

Owner Ron Palmieri, a Healdsburg native who returned five years ago after more than 20 years in the restaurant business in Santa Barbara, named the place for his father, Frank, 83, a retired mechanic, and his uncle Ernie, a former bar and cafe owner who died earlier this month at age 91.

"We have people coming in and asking, 'Is Frank around? Is Ernie around?' I think they might think that Frank and Ernie actually run the place, but then we tell 'em it's a namesake thing," Palmieri said.

The walls are decorated with old photos of Frank, Ernie and the extended Palmieri family, which goes back 100 years in Healdsburg, he said. It's not unusual for visitors to reminisce about their own encounters with the Palmieri clan.

"There are a lot of old-timers around, and it's a small town and we're an old family," Palmieri said.

Initially introduced as a steakhouse, Frank & Ernie's scaled back in April to more of a pub-style operation, but kept one steak on the menu — a top sirloin — as well as sandwiches, burgers, and fish and chips.

The place also features a generous happy-hour menu, with smoked pork tacos, grilled shrimp and other snacks made from fresh ingredients in its own kitchen.

"We even have our own smoker for the pork," Palmieri said.

Frank & Ernie's serves lunch and dinner daily. 9 Mitchell Lane, Healdsburg. 433-2147.

— Dan Taylor

Ask Petalumans where to grab a good home-cooked meal at all hours of the day, and they'll point you to Pete's Henny Penny, the eatery just off Highway 101 on Petaluma Boulevard North.

Many who stop in appreciate that the restaurant is open 24 hours a day. The diner is especially popular among truck drivers and travelers. There's even a special lot reserved for truck and RV drivers, allowing overnight parking for those who need to catch a few winks before hitting the road again.

"I think people like that it's a family-owned business," waitress Cherie Castor of Santa Rosa said during her evening shift. "It's also the food, the portions, and the atmosphere."

Castor had just finished serving eight plates of hamburgers to a table in the back, and she was rushing back to the counter to take the order of one of her regulars — "what I had the night before," as he put it.

"Seventy-five percent of the customers are regulars," waitress Kelly Snow of Petaluma said. "It's the social atmosphere for regulars," she said about why locals were drawn to Henny Penny's. "And it's convenient for non-regulars."

Family-owned since 1971, the diner has become a Petaluma landmark. The homemade food is classic diner fare, from 12-ounce steaks and potatoes to a full plate of breakfast favorites.

"People like the hamburgers," Castor said. "But a lot of people order the fried chicken and chicken-fried steak. I can't sell enough of that."

Ann Leach of Santa Rosa takes her family when they're driving home late from someplace like San Francisco.

Her reason for coming back to Henny Penny's is that they keep it simple.

"It's down home, very family-oriented," she said. "We feel good about supporting them. The waitresses are funny, too."

Pete's Henny Penny is at 4995 Petaluma Blvd. N., on the corner of Stony Point Road in Petaluma. 763-0459.

— Crissi Langwell

Jazmin Bargaz frequents the Breakaway Caf?in Sonoma because of its big portions, homey feel and playful menu.

The meat-eater's favorites begin with the Cowboy Steaks — the 8-ounce Flat Iron, the 10-ounce Filet, or 12-ounce Rib-Eye — and then there is a hefty line-up of burgers.

The most eye-catching and no doubt caloric is the "Cardiac Burger," a hamburger topped with blue cheese, bacon and avocado on a soft bun. But Bargaz, who lives in Sonoma, is particularly taken by the breakfast menu, which also has its share of comfort-food offerings.

Tasty dishes include Corned Beef Hash, Pigs in a Blanket and Hot Cakes. The service is always good, Bargaz said, but it's the food that keeps her coming back.

Tina Luther is another regular who is a fan of the specials and the expansive menu that's "well-priced and consistently good." She said while the restaurant serves comfort food, it's more polished than a "greasy spoon."

Luther is especially fond of its "unpretentious atmosphere" and its plentiful, comfortable booths. Yet another perk, she said, is the "family-friendly" appeal of its Kids Corner, created to give parents a moment.

"If kids are too fidgety to sit, there are little puzzles, crayons and hand-held toys so they won't drive customers nuts," Luther joked.

The Breakway Caf?is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 19101 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma., 996-5949.

— Peg Melnik

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