By Glen and Mary Frederiksen
Coming to the North Coast wine country of California is transformational for us. As soon as we cross any of the bridges that lead us north of the San Francisco Bay, our bodies and minds relax, shedding the cares and worries that come with the workaday world to the south.
While the main attraction is the fabulous wine from any of the 2,000 or so wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties, our later, non-poverty-stricken years have found us increasingly driven to, and seeking out, the wonderful cuisine of the region.
We have dined at dozens of fine dining establishments in the cities of Napa, Rutherford, St. Helena, and Calistoga in the Napa Valley. On the Sonoma side, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa have likewise had their share of fine eateries.
One area that has, in the past, been a flyover zone for great cuisine (in our opinion) was the city of Sonoma and the nearby Valley of the Moon. Despite a beautiful central square, Sonoma was more about cafes and bistros than formal haute cuisine.
With the arrival of Aventine, located just outside of Sonoma at the gateway to the Valley of the Moon, all that has changed. The name of the restaurant is from one of the seven hills upon which Rome was founded. Located in a 175 year old building that once was a grist mill, this upscale Italian restaurant is overseen by Chef Adolfo Veronese. He began his culinary journey growing up in his father’s San Francisco restaurant, Osteria Romano. After formal training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Veronese worked for a number of highly regarded establishments, including Drago, Valentino, Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining, and TAO’s Lavo Restaurant and Nightclub in Las Vegas.
In 2009, Veronese returned to his home town of San Francisco (his grandfather was Mayor Joseph L. Alioto), and has pursued his uncompromising passion for authentic Italian, Mediterranean, and Californian food through the Aventine Hospitality group.
Aventine General Manager Fabiano Ramaci presides over the dining room, welcoming guests and seeing to their every need. As if his duties at the restaurant weren’t enough, Ramaci is an accomplished winemaker, owning Mora Estates Winery. He specializes in – what else? – Italian varietals.
On the night of our visit, four of us enjoyed a sampling of signature dishes from the Aventine menu. The food was incredible! Below, Mary has written a summary of the dishes served, with descriptors and tasting notes.
Mary here. The dishes we were served were memorable and delicious. Here are a few notes about each dish.
Sometimes when I dine at an upscale restaurant where I know the Chef will be offering many dishes, I do not eat the bread course at the beginning of the meal. This night, it would have been a mistake. Please be aware that the bread served at Aventine is not to be “skipped”. It was soft, moist, flavorful and addicting – perfect for sopping up the sauces that accompanied several of the dishes. It was served with a Port Butter that was exceptionally tasty. If they sold this bread and butter in the restaurant lobby, I would have purchased a loaf and a pound of the butter to take home.
Our next course was the Margherita Pizza. The dish was classic mozzarella, tomato and basil with a perfect balance and freshness. This could be a meal by itself.
Gamberoni (jumbo shrimp) was our antipasti course. The prawns were wrapped in prosciutto and sautéed, with sage and a balsamic glaze. Firm but not overcooked, they were so fresh and tasty!
The Lasagna Al Forno (al forno means any dish that is baked in an oven) was expertly prepared with a combination of beef, veal, pork, ragu, creamy béchamel, mozzarella, parmigiano and, instead of nutmeg, Chef Veronese used cinnamon. A nice touch and a well-balanced dish.
A signature dish of Chef Adolfo Veronese followed and this was my favorite of the evening. This dish has made it to “My Last Meal on Earth” menu. The Raviolo Di Fromaggio contained peas, wild mushrooms, white wine sauce and shaved parmigiano. Black pepper accented the rich and yummy entrée of perfectly cooked raviolois. When I next return to Aventine, this will be my main course. Thank you, Chef!!
Branzino (sea bass) was the next course. This whole grilled European Striped Sea Bass, infused with rosemary and lemon, was so fresh it tasted like it had just been pulled from the sea. It was accompanied by roasted peewee potatoes, roasted vegetables, oregano and a wonderfully flavorful citrus vinaigrette. WOW!
Scottadito was next. In Italian, the word scottadito means “burned fingers.” This dish is so named because the lamb chops are so delicious that you can’t resist eating them sizzling hot, straight from the grill and burning your fingers. Chef used grilled Superior Farms lamb chops with sides of sautéed greens, fingerling potato chips and a balsamic mint reduction sauce. Mary “had a little lamb” and she was a very happy diner.
Lamb Shank with Lentils in an Amarone Sauce was a special dish that was not on the menu. Pork shank is the on-the-menu dish, but it had already sold out for the evening. It was beautifully presented and prepared, although some at the table felt the flavor a bit too strong.
For the vegetable course, called Contorni, the chef offered Funghi, a dish of sautéed seasonal mushrooms, roasted garlic and Italian parsley. The flavors “popped,” with a spicy impression on the palate. It was savory and delicious.
The final two dishes were desserts. Budino is defined as any type of soft, sweet dessert thickened — usually with flour — and baked, boiled or steamed. The one we were served contained chocolate-pecan crumble, salted caramel and soft whipped cream. It was delicious! I wanted to lick the bowl but, because four of us were sharing, I refrained. It was creamy, fresh and light, with a perfect sweet crunch from the crumble.
Finally, a warm flourless chocolate cake arrived. It, too, had salted caramel and was served with a vanilla gelato. Sadly, there were a few bites left in the dish but that was only because we had run out of room! I refrained from asking for a to-go box for the remaining dessert.
Compliments to Chef Veronese and all the staff who served us! It was a dining experience I will not soon forget.
14301 Arnold Drive
Glen Ellen, CA 95442