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.