Chianti Cucina would make Italian grandma proud
by TANYA HENRY
There’s a lot to be said for experience. I can always tell when a restaurant is run by someone new to the business – the staff displays certain timidity, there is confusion among servers and the kitchen and a “big picture” sensibility seems lacking. When I walked into the barely two month old Chianti Cucina and it was humming along like a well-oiled machine, I knew immediately this was no first-time operation. Two husband-and-wife teams have taken over at the space where longtime chef Chris Harman had been cooking Italian food what was once Capra’s. Though the menu has completely changed, Harman clearly has a handle on the cuisine. Everything I tasted had a balance and polish I seldom experience in newly opened eateries. And the charming space embodies sophisticated, rustic charm. Warm earth tones fill the two rooms, a whimsically stenciled wall features a giantsized spoon and fork and wood-framed mirrors, while an upper room boasts a large family-style table and a small bar. The effect is a convivial, cozy space separated by a partition of wine bottles, plants and bottles of olive oil. Mark Robertson handles the front of the house, while his wife, Bonnie, an interior designer revamped the space. Ed Pizzuti, who owns Cafe Giosta in Petaluma with his wife, Josephine, brings his extensive restaurant experience to the venture. And most fortunately for everyone, Harman stayed on as executive chef. Harman says he’s grown up in the restaurant business. Besides his six years as chef/owner of Capra’s, he had stints as executive chef at Avenue Grill in Mill Valley and Joe LoCoco’s in Greenbrae. What he knows inside and out is Italian cooking, and that was evident with the first bite of plump, rolled radicchio leaves stuffed with stracchino cheese ($8.50) and baked and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. The generous mounds bursting with the soft, mild cheese had just the right bitter green to creamy cheese ratio. A house salad with toasted hazelnuts ($6.50) had an understated quality that made me wish I had eaten it Euro style, at the end of my meal. The lightly dressed baby greens and crunchy bits of hazelnut were simple and unimposing and would have been an ideal finish after the rich, heartier entrees. Not surprisingly many of the dishes here are complemented by, you guessed it, chianti. I wouldn’t even consider a light, white wine with these robust dishes. Italian and American selections are offered, but I would stick to the Italian offerings and especially the medium-bodied chianti that seem perfectly tailored to the lusty cuisine. Preparations for both a veal saltimbocca ($18.95) and a house-made ravioli were spot on. Thinly pounded veal draped over mashed sweet potatoes and a paper-thin slice of prosciutto was melt-in-your-mouth divine. I thought the accompanying sweet potato mash might overwhelm the meat, but instead the sweet, salty and creamy flavors were made for each other. Likewise, the ravioli was tender and mild. A creamy butter sage sauce was just the right match for a spinach ricotta filling. Sprigs of deep-fried sage added an earthy note. Always a litmus test for an Italian restaurant, an ethereal tiramisu hit high notes. Ladyfingers, espresso, mascarpone cheese and fresh whipped cream in all the right amounts were simply divine. Chianti Cucina hit the ground running. The already popular newcomer is more like an old friend back in town. With owners who are no strangers to the restaurant world, and a chef who clearly knows his way around his kitchen, it’s likely Chianti will be the new Novato favorite if it isn’t already. REVIEW Chianti Cucina Address: 7416 Redwood Blvd., Novato Phone: 878-0314 Web site: www.chiantinovato.com Cuisine: Italian Service: Professional Noise level: Loud Recommended items: Ravioli, veal saltimbocca, tiramisu Liquor selection: Beer and wine Corkage: $15 Heart-healthy and vegetarian selections: Salads, soups Parking: Small lot and street parking Wheelchair access: Yes Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays; 4 to 10 p.m. weekends Credit cards: All major Summary: New owners have taken over the longtime Novato eatery Capra’s and transformed the space and the menu. Chef Chris Harman is still behind the stoves and his food is better than ever. Don’t miss the house-made ravioli and to-die-for tiramisu. Tanya Henry, the former senior food editor at cooking.com and a judge at the James Beard Foundation journalism awards, has degrees in culinary arts and nutrition and lives in Marin. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The IJ invites readers to post their own opinions and experiences about the restaurants featured in Wednesday’s dining reviews. Enter your comments at the bottom of this story online at www.marinij.com.