Osteria Stellina chef Caiazzo lets fine west Marin ingredients shine

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Chef Christian Caiazzo of Osteria Stellina in Point Reyes Station has worked at some heavyweight restaurants ? the Union Square Caf?in New York (a pinnacle of Italian cookery), and Postrio in San Francisco, among others. His experience has led him to ask himself the ultimate question: not ?What more can I do to improve this dish?? but rather, ?What can I stop doing to improve this dish??

In other words, he?s pared his dishes down to their essentials to maximize the pleasure they give. And the most essential quality is sheer goodness. This is the true spirit of Italian cooking.

Take his bowl of Tomales Cove Mussels ($11 ****). Tomales Cove Mussel Company is a small mussel farm in Marconi Cove, a few miles up Highway 1, where radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi established a ship-to-shore radio station during World War I. Owner Scott Zahl works his small patch of mussels out in Tomales Bay, growing the shellfish high in the water column so they avoid bottom-feeding predators and swirling sand that might make them gritty. They are plump and meaty, with a fine flavor.

But that?s just the starting point for Chef Caiazzo. He steams them and makes a white wine and garlic broth with the released juices. To this he adds pieces of Lunny?s grass-fed, organic-beef hot links from Drake?s Bay that not only give the broth a touch of meatiness but also add a mouth-warming spice. Onions and peeled red peppers are tossed in, and who knows what other magic he works (like the merest touch of cream), but the mussels are the best I?ve ever had, mostly because the broth is pure culinary artistry.

Osteria is Italian for ?inn,? but there are no rooms for rent. There is a spare 57-seat restaurant with bare wood tables without salt and pepper, tea lights, or any of that. The kitchen is open and you can watch the cooks preparing food until your food comes, and then you?ll be too busy burying yourself in all the goodness.

The goodness comes from the prevailing spirit of west Marin County, an unwavering insistence on finding and using locally grown, organic ingredients. You can see the ingredients in the open kitchen, but you can?t see the art and touches of genius that go to make the food so transcendently good.

Big picture windows look out on Point Reyes? main street, which is Highway 1, the scenic Pacific Coast Highway that traces California?s shoreline for most of the state?s length. There are a lot of fine places to eat along this length, but I?ll venture to say that Stellina ranks with the best of them.

On a recent night, the place was packed, mostly with families, their little kids in tow. And by 7 p.m., the hubbub was so loud it was hard to converse. However, who can talk with a mouthful of food people of all ages can enjoy? What little kid wouldn?t like the strozzapreti pasta with Marin Sun Farms lamb Bolognese?

Beans and Greens ($8 ****) is pure comfort food for folks who like to eat hearty and healthy. With a nod to Tuscany, white cannellini beans are simmered with rosemary and garlic in chicken stock, soaking up just a hint of the rosemary?s volatile oil and garlic?s goodness. Chard is braised in this and mingles with the beans in a nutritious marriage. The aroma is lovely, heady, sensuous. The flavor makes you feel good.

Not only strozzapreti (which is Italian for ?priest choker?), but all the pastas at Stellina (Italian for ?Little Star?) are hand-made, including Bucatini with Manila Clams ($16 ***), garlic, Italian parsley and spicy chiles. Bucatini are fat noodles, something like udon but with more grip on the bite. The sauce is buttery and the noodles are the kind you slurp up and into your mouth with lips puckered. Manila clams, grown in Washington?s Puget Sound inlets, are exceptionally tender little morsels. Here they?re in the shell so you have to dig them out with the little forks provided.

Ditto with Hog Island Sweetwater Oysters ($14 ****) on the half shell. Given that they are, like the mussels, grown a few miles north on Highway 1 out in the bay?s wide middle section and fresh as oysters can be, they are also as good as oysters get, especially at this time of year when spawning is over and the muddy-tasting reproductive sacs have disappeared and sweet glycogen is once again plumping them up.

Like any good Italian restaurant, they serve pizza at Stellina, but unlike almost some Italian restaurants, they tend to add odd ? but local ? toppings. For instance, there?s a Drake?s Bay Family Farms oyster pizza with leeks braised in Straus organic cream, lemon thyme and parsley. Our table tried the Star Route Farms Stinging Nettles, Mozzarella and Sea Salt Tomato Sauce Pizza ($15 ***). The nettles have an earthy, herbal flavor and when cooked lose the formic acid that makes them sting. They?re wonderfully nutritious, with high protein content. The house-made crust was perfectly balanced between crispy and chewy, and the pizza had a little kick from a very light dusting of cayenne.

Niman Ranch Pork Ossobuco ($19 ***?) had been cooked so long and lovingly that the meat was not just falling off the bone, it was falling apart itself into incredibly tender morsels. It sat on a mound of buttery mashed potatoes mixed with earthy porcini mushrooms, surrounded by braised escarole, and was a portion for a very hungry man.

Fulton Valley Chicken Thighs ($17 **?) were cooked in a little liquid and oil, Italian style, brightened by light spiciness, and flavored with sage and organic celery root, onions, carrots and kale.

Pastry chef Laura Matis came up with an outstandingly delicious Almond Teacake ($10 ***), chock full of nuts and served warm with a compote of plums flavored with rich zinfandel and a scoop of cr?e fraiche ice cream. Her Flourless Chocolate Fudge Cake ($10 ***) was a bar of chocolate fudge topped with whipped caramel cr?e fraiche and crunchy cacao nibs. Chocolate lovers can unite around this dessert.

Service was just about perfect. Our waiter had her eye on us and on her other tables right through the busy dinner hour without missing a beat, but she had help as other staff brought out dishes as soon as they were set on the serving counter and whisked away our plates as soon as we finished them.

For wines, the list is split between interesting California bottles (2008 Pey-Marin Riesling for $48) and Italian selections (2008 Quintale Greco di Tufo for $36). You can also choose a carafe (about 2? glasses) or glass of any of the 25 wines on the list. Corkage is $15.

To sum up: Eating local and organic never tasted so good. Stellina?s food is authentically Italian, meaning it?s absolutely delicious.

<em>Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review for the Sonoma Living section. He can be reached at jeffcox@sonic.net.</em>

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