Nudging open the age-worn door of Catelli’s, an old timer steps inside, blinks a few times surveying the restaurant, then smiles at his wife. “I used to eat here all the time,” he beams, gently guiding her inside toward the familiar dining room. “You know, before it went all foo-foo.”
Welcome back to Catelli’s. First opened in 1936 by Santi and Virginia Catelli as a simple Italian-American restaurant in Geyserville, the family trattoria was a Sonoma County institution for more than 50 years. Known then as “Catelli’s The Rex” (the “Rex” sign purchased on the cheap from a local sign maker whose original client never claimed it), the menu featured decidedly unfoofed fare of spaghetti, minestrone and ravioli. But after decades of checked-tablecloth service, the Catelli family shuttered the restaurant in 1986. The building was later leased to the owners of upscale regional Italian eatery, Santi, for more than a decade.
Having grown up in their grandparent’s restaurant, Domenica and Nicholas Catelli long dreamed of reopening the family business. Both food veterans, the siblings nabbed the opportunity in 2010 when the Catelli building went vacant. Nick’s front of the house experience as a restaurant manager and bartender along with sister Domenica’s stints as a celebrity chef, cookbook author and bigwig in the organic food industry seemed a solid start. Armed with generations of family photos and memories of their grandmother’s cooking, the two dove in.
Central to the old-is-new menu are Virginia’s fabled 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. 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, who recently featured the restaurant on the Food Network, 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.
The thin sheets are also used for a 10-layer lasagna that’s so light it nearly floats off the plate. “People all over the world tell us they dream about Catelli’s lasagna,” said Nick.
Of course, where there is spaghetti, follow meatballs. Made with free-range Covelo beef and homemade pork sausage, Catelli’s taste like what a meatball should — savory, rich and delightfully carnivorous. They’re especially tasty stuffed between two Franco American buns as a trio of sliders.
Domenica’s background in healthy, organic eating brings an alternative point of view to the traditional comfort-food menu. Her daily specials include dishes like organic grilled favas, pan-seared local yellowtail or a plate of fresh burrata and prosciutto with wild arugula and grilled bread. But does all this rich food jive with her good-eating outlook? “It’s about simply prepared food with prime ingredients,” she said. And that, frankly, means one of the best hamburgers in Wine Country — a mix of ground Kobe beef brisket and sirloin that’s best eaten silkily rare and with a minimum of condiments. Mind-bendingly good.
Despite a modern, whitewashed interior, the past is ever-present at Catelli’s. Sepia-toned portraits smile down from ever wall — the inimitable server Kitty Dugan astride her Indian motorcycle, bartender Lou Columbano tending bar in the 1930′s (he is still a weekly regular at the restaurant), or patriarch Santi standing stoically in the 1940s.
Comingling the past and present, Catelli’s has quietly wooed back locals, again making it part of the fabric of tiny Geyserville. Once again families, friends and old timers eat elbow to elbow in dining room that’s fed them for three generations — a fitting reminder that humble ravioli, a bowl of minestrone or a simple meatball so deeply rooted in a community’s past makes it all the more delicious today.
Catelli’s Restaurant, 21047 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville, 857-3471. Closed Monday, open daily for lunch and dinner. Website
Want a hint at Domenica’s secret tomato sauce? You can find it in her book, Mom-a-licious: Fresh, Fast, Family Food for the Hot Mama in You!