Santi alums keep artisan spirit alive in Wine Country
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.