Appetizers
August 28, 2006
Healdsburg: Pizza Central

As a community's dining scene improves, not all improvements are limited to white-tablecloth restaurants with esoteric and pricey dishes. This became clear during a long weekend in the northern Sonoma County community of Healdsburg, where a trickle-down principle of gastronomic upscaling looks to be at work, affecting pedestrian fare like hamburgers, pizzas and ribs. While we had plenty of opportunity to eat foie gras prepared in several artful ways, the culinary memory most vivid after we returned home was of the pizzas we ate. I'm not sure if it's the fog that lays over the community early most mornings, or the produce gardens and bakeries that flourish in the area, or the presence of a master oven builder, but pizzas in Healdsburg were consistently impressive for both the toasty, smoky and sturdy nature of their crusts and the freshness, brightness and creativity of their toppings.

Pizza for breakfast usually means something cold and coagulated left over from the night before, but not at Downtown Bakery & Creamery on the east side of the plaza in the middle of Healdsburg. Long celebrated for its breads and pastries, Downtown Bakery added breakfast in January, including a pizza topped with white corn, leeks, sausage, cherry tomatoes and a sunny-side-up egg right in the middle ($8.25). The snap of the corn, the sweetness of the tomatoes and the richness of the sausage, all on a crust dark and puffy, was enough to get even two people primed for a day of cycling, strolling or just driving leisurely from winery to winery in the surrounding countryside.

Nevertheless, while in the countryside we couldn't pass up the "pizza Sofia" ($13.50) during a luncheon pause at the Moving On Cafe, the temporary name for the bistro at Francis Ford Coppola's as yet unnamed new winery at Geyserville; it's the former Chateau Souverain, undergoing extensive remodeling, though the cafe and the tasting bar remain open. Pizzas form the most extensive section of the compact menu, including the "Sofia," named after Coppola's screenwriting and filmmaking daughter. I have no idea what her temperament is like, but the pizza is a gutsy, vivacious and forthright blend of peppery arugula, satiny and rich prosciutto, and robust shaved parmigiano. The crust was wonderfully dark and crackly. It had so much life to it that a glass of the jammy Director's Reserve 2003 Zinfandel ($12) wasn't at all too big.

At lunch the next day we confirmed that this string of fine pizzas was no fluke when we stopped at Bovolo on the south side of the Healdsburg plaza. We knew that Bovolo is a spinoff of Zazu, a snazzy roadhouse west of Santa Rosa owned by the husband-and-wife team of John Stewart and Duskie Estes. We also knew that Stewart, a protege of New York celebrity chef Mario Batali, cures his own meats and makes his own sausages and salumi. Thus, we had to order the "salsiccia" ($12.50), a pizza featuring his "black pig Italian sausage," which was moist, spicy and potent, but I wish there would have been a few more slices of it. No quibbles about the roasted sweet red peppers, the fruity tomato sauce, the melted cheese and the hot, bubbly and flavorful crust that also constituted the pizza, however.

If I were heading back over to Healdsburg this Labor Day weekend I'd definitely put pizza high on the menu.

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