Roberto is back. Seems the popular Santa Rosa restauranteur couldn’t sit by idly and watch his Italian trattoria fade into mediocrity after selling it several years ago. So Roberto Catania bought it back and now mans the door like the paisan he can’t help but be, embracing old friends with tight hugs and sidling into crowded booths like he never left left the place.
You’re either one of the family, or you soon will be.
Roberto’s, now renamed Trattoria Lupo in honor of Sonoma Valley scribe Jack London (lupo means ‘wolf’ in Italian) is the same dark, crowded, neighborhood chianti and osso buco spot it’s always been. Black-clad waiters snap around the room under the watchful eye of the restaunt’s affable Don.
And though Roberto probably wouldn’t appreciate all the Soprano’s comparisons folks can’t help to make about his chummy Italian eatery, he doesn’t exactly eschew the old school veal and red sauce vibe that permeates every corner of the room.
Which is not to say this is ‘Mama Mia’ spaghetti and meatballs fare. Roberto has pared down the menu to a managable list of classics — Veal Saltimbocca, polenta with sausage, unparalleled gnocchi, lamb shanks and Calamari Steak Dorado among the favorites.
This isn’t a fussy, ‘whatever’s in season’ menu. Chances are if you loved the ravioli last month it will still be on the menu next month — and consistency, predictablility and comfort always attract a crowd. There are a few daily specials, and Osso Buco (which wasn’t on the menu on either of my visits) is a much-anticipated treat.
What works so well is that the food is so unexpectedly good. Not haute cuisine, not tweezer-perfect and not even dead-on with every dish, but consistently tasty. The exterior, with its 60’s ranch architecture, faux-finish facade and Creamsicle orange paint, can be a barrier to entry. But inside it’s cozy and pin-neat –on the weekends, jammed to within an inch of bursting at the seams.
Waiting at the tiny, seemingly tacked-on full bar at the back, gives you a few minutes to peruse the menu and watch the drama unfolding in the dining room — families, a huge booth of gals having a well-earned night out, Roberto kissing babies and glad-handing old friends.
Best bets: Pasta and polenta are top-scorers for BiteClub. BiteClub Jr. and I nearly came to blows over a plate of cloud-like ghocchi. Veal is a signature dish, the Saltimbocca topped with mozzarella, prosciutto and a light white wine sauce. The carpaccio can’t compete with (as one Yelper pointed out) Cucina Paradiso’s in Petaluma, tasting more like very rare roast beef than the very sweet, clean flavor I prefer, but it’s certainly still worth a try. If you do nothing else, do not miss the housemade tiramisu. Layers of booze-soaked lady fingers, espresso powder, macarpone.
Working the room obsessively, Cantania stops at each table to ask if your food’s alright. If you need more wine. If you’re happy. And with Santa Rosa’s favorite paisan back in charge, chances are you will be.
Trattoria Lupo (formerly Roberto’s), 4776 Sonoma Hwy, Santa Rosa, 707-539-0260, open Tuesday through Sunday, from 4pm to 10pm.