Any true traveler will tell you that the best way to learn about a culture is to eat with (and like) the locals. But what are the dishes that define Sonoma County? Some might suggest “Wine Country” cuisine — Cal-Ital dishes with tweezer perfection. Maybe its seafood (true on the Coast). Or what about Mexican?
When you really ask around, it’s none of these. Instead, it’s an eclectic group of familiar dishes that snap to mind when a friendly visitor asks for a recommendation. The answers are part history, part geography and part nostalgia. Mix that all together and you get an icon — a dish that may not be the fanciest, the trendiest or even the most perfectly crafted, but notable for its own merits.
We’ve come up with 10 of the best, though the number of times we’ve changed up the participants speaks to its subjectivity. You’ll find more online (because ten hardly seems fair) as well as plenty of your comments online at BiteClubEats.com.
1. Catelli’s Ravioli: Tissue-paper thin sheets of pasta dough are rolled daily, stuffed with a secret combination of sausage, beef, chicken, chard, sourdough crumbs, herbs and spices. “Our family never wrote down a recipe, so we recreated these from sensory memories,” said Domenica Catelli. Topped with her eponymous DC sauce (a new family secret made with organic tomatoes and local olive oil), they’re old world comfort with a new school freshness. Family friend Guy Fieri calls them some of the best he’s ever had. But don’t ask for them to-go, because these delicate beauties apparently self-destruct within a few minutes and don’t travel well. 21047 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville, 857-3471. Closed Monday, open daily for lunch and dinner
2. Chicken Livers at Bistro Ralph: Fried up with onions is the only way to eat these little nuggets of iron-packed offal. You either love ‘em or you don’t, but Bistro Ralph is the only place to find them consistently and consistently good. Can’t bear the thought of poultry innards? Chicken Paillard, a pounded breast with lemon and capers, is a great alternative. 109 Plaza St., Healdsburg, 433-1380.
3. Reuben at Mac’s Kosher Style Deli: This Fourth Street cafe is about as close as you’ll get to the Big Apple, when it comes to deli food in Sonoma County. This version is unfussy, with tart sauerkraut, toasted rye bread, thousand island dressing, corned beef and Swiss. With fries, naturally. 630 4th St., Santa Rosa, 545-3785.
4. Harissa fries at Underwood: Garlic fries are fine, but West County’s favorite bar puts a spicy North African spin on their frites. Rolled in harissa, a spicy (but not hot) paste peppers and spices, they’re an iconic late-night eat. 9113 Graton Rd., Graton, 823-7023. We can’t mention fries, however, without a nod to the truffle fries at Willi’s Wine Bar, a dressed-up side dish that goes super model with the addition of truffled aioli. (4404 Old Redwood Highway, Santa Rosa, 526-3096).
5. Meatballs at Mary’s Pizza Shack: It’s our homegrown, hometown pizzeria where the sauces are still made from scratch and plenty of folks still remember the original Mary. But its the giant meatballs smothered in meat sauce and melted mozzarella that folks have a fondness for. Various locations, including 614 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 571-1959.
6. Fresh mozzarella at Rosso: Chef John Franchetti has many talents, but the one that keeps him busiest is his cheese making. The master of curds has a special way with creamy, fresh mozzarella. Stuffed with ricotta, melted on a wood-fired pizza or just drizzled with olive oil, it will make you swear off chewy, dry mozzarellas forever. New mozzarella bar at 151 Petaluma Blvd S., Petaluma; 53 Montgomery Dr., Santa Rosa, 544-3221.
7. Martini Prawns at Gary Chu’s: Even if Gary didn’t invent these devilishly crispy shrimps awash in a sweet-savory mayonnaise sauce, Sonoma County is happy to give him full credit. Served up in a martini glass, these prawns put cocktail shrimp to shame. 611 5th St., Santa Rosa, 526-5840.
8. Sticky Bun at Downtown Bakery and Creamery: If you haven’t stopped in lately for a sticky bun, there’s no doubt in my mind that the flaky, crispy, spicy buns of goodness are the best in Sonoma County. If not the planet. Not surprisingly the bakery was started by Chez Panisse alums in 1987, and since then the original recipes have only aged to perfection. 308 Center Street Healdsburg, 431-2719.
9. Turkey dinner at Willie Bird’s: There’s nothing snooty or modern about Willie Bird’s Restaurant. In fact, that’s exactly the appeal: Year-round Thanksgiving dinners of turkey (white or dark), scoops of mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce all slathered with a sturdy brown gravy. And while the sides aren’t anything to write home about, the turkey is always impeccable — fresh Willie Bird turkey, raised in Sonoma County by the Benedetti family. 1150 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, 542-0861.
10. Fig salad at the Girl and the Fig: Chef Sondra Bernstein is legendary for her goat cheese, arugula and fig salad, and with good reason. It combines spicy greens, sweet figs, creamy cheese and a tart vinaigrette in soul-satisfying harmony. 110 West Spain Street, Sonoma, 938-3634.
11. Porky goodness at Zazu:Black Pig Meat is the bacon business of John Stewart and Duskie Estes, who have proven again and again that they’re the undisputed King and Queen of Pork. Anything they cook up with venerable pig parts is worth checking out. Now with a pork-centric spot on the Russian River, you’ve got no excuse not to indulge.
12. Caesar Salad at Cafe Citti. Though my grandma would argue that it’s the tuna-egg-mayo.
13. Sweetbreads at La Gare.
14. Apple Pie at Mom’s Apple Pie.
17. French onion soup and sourdough at Costeaux Bakery.
19. Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit at the Farmhouse Inn.
20. A burger at Mike’s at the Crossroads.
21. Wild boar at Cafe Europe or Lococo’s.
22. Foccaccia at Wild Flour Bakery.
23. Mateo’s Tamales.
I’m leaving two openings for your best suggestions below…