Looking for Authentic Italian Food in Sonoma County? Here’s Your Spot

As Negri’s prepares to celebrate its 75th birthday, I have one question: why isn’t this Occidental restaurant busier? Often when I stop in, the bar is crowded, but the dining room has plenty of empty seats among its 20 or so tables.

Perhaps it’s because Occidental is a tiny, rural town, off the average diner’s routes. Or perhaps because indeed, the place is old— two sets of friends I invited to join me for dinner there recently declined, with comments about the age equaling questionable quality.

Well, then. Aged wines are supposed to be better, right? I myself – ahem -am getting older, so certainly improving, I can only hope. And, as a popularly cited report from Cornell Hospitality Quarterly notes, around 60 percent of new restaurants fail within the first year, and nearly 80 percent shutter before their fifth anniversary.

So high five to the family-owned Negri’s, which has been faithfully serving delicious, remarkable value Italian food since Joe and Theresa Negri opened it on Bohemian Highway in 1943.

Now dubbed Negri’s Italian Dinners & Joe’s Bar to better showcase the attached lounge and bar, the restaurant has gotten some updates recently. Most dishes served are traditional family recipes, but several more modern dishes are now on offer, like a Hail the Kale salad dotted with sunflower seeds, feta cheese, cherry tomato and lemon vinaigrette ($), and the option for gluten-free pasta.

Yet as I dug into a steaming hot bowl of Nonni’s ravioli, I was thinking I’m happy way back in the ’40s. The fluted-edge pasta is housemade, generously overstuffed with moist crumbly beef and pork, nicely bitter bits of Swiss chard, fresh herbs and Parmesan. I chose the chunky, well-seasoned Bolognese, among the other marinara, Alfredo or pesto options.

It tasted even better, perhaps, because of the quaint setting. All the cozy touches are there: red and white checked tablecloths, ball lamps painted in Italian flag colors of red, white and green, and, decorating some tables, wax-dripped Chianti bottles. Someone takes loving care of this elderly lady — she is sparkling clean, freshly painted, and this time of year, she boasts lots of Easter-theme knickknacks for a personal touch.

Then, there’s the thoughtful pricing. Negri’s bills itself as family style dining, meaning, in this case, that while entrees are per-person, full dinners include shareable servings of minestrone soup, a mixed green salad, antipasto nibbles of marinated peppers, veggies, herbed chickpeas and red beans, a few slices of salami, French bread and butter. Some entrées include a few ravioli, too.

But you can also order an entrée solo, bringing just the sides that usually include fries, mashed potatoes or sautéed vegetables. Some of the entrées are served in the bar, too, for an even lower price. And then, there was one afternoon I stopped in on the way back from an area appointment, craving more of those ravioli. The barkeep asked how many people I was serving, I told her two, and she cheerfully suggested I get an off-menu quart portion, since it would give me a lot more pasta for the money.

Follow along, now: Nonni’s ravioli as a full dinner is $23, as a dining room entrée it’s $16, as a bar entrée it’s $14, and as a to-go quart, it’s $15. I love the flexibility.

All the classics are very well executed. It’s hard to resist the burrata appetizer, boasting a large round of creamy rich Di Stefano cheese presented with olives, arugula, cherry tomatoes and toasted olive oil crostini ($13). Polenta and meatballs are perfectly textured, flavorful and smothered in Bolognese with a peppery shock of arugula and sprinkle of shaved Parmesan ($12). And garlic bread is as crunchy-crust toasted, soft interior and buttery breath-destroying as it should be (quarter loaf $6, half loaf $9, full loaf $14).

As for quality, consider that the family sources fruits, vegetables and herbs from its own Negri Ranch two miles from the restaurant, uses local producers like Santa Rosa Meat & Poultry and North Coast Fisheries and has a room on-site dedicated to making fresh pasta. The cooks make the sauces and dressings from scratch, bread comes from a Sebastopol bakery, and desserts include homemade treats like the tasty apple fritters ($5), cut into two large fruit rings, battered and deep fried crisp with a shower of powdered sugar.

Consequently, this is mama’s baked lasagna (if you have a good cook as a mama), in a huge slab of beef, sausage, mushroom, onion, gooey mozzarella and ricotta cheese ($13/$17/$24). And my seafood pasta sported five sweet, garlic butter prawns amid the silky tangle of angel hair dressed in white wine and cream ($20/$27).

I was pleased with the chicken Parmesan, too, for the monster portion of boneless chicken breast, a virtual mantle of melting mozzarella, and Parmesan ($19/$26). I only wished for more marinara sauce, and a few leaves of fresh basil, to flavor-boost the bird and mix in with the angel hair pasta bed.

On another visit, pizza and drinks took center stage, enjoyed in the lounge with its curved wood bar, antique black-and-white photos, sturdy stone fireplace, and ample windows. The 12-inch pies start with good chewy crust then build up to a variety of toppings like Occidental’s own Panizzera Meat Co. spicy Italian sausage, egg or mushrooms. The Capperi is a particularly savory model, spread with tomato sauce and capped in lots of prosciutto, zingy fried capers, huge dollops of burrata anchoring every slice, and a flurry of crisp arugula ($17).

About five years ago, Joe and Theresa Negri’s great-granddaughter, Amanda Negri, introduced a craft cocktail program. It brings sips like The Solstice, a sweet-sharp quaff of Hangar 1 Buddha’s Hand vodka, ginger, cranberry, lemon and sparkling water ($10), to go alongside a short but well-selected wine and beer list focusing on local labels such as Russian River Valley County Line Zinfandel ($45) or Healdsburg Racer 5 IPA ($5).

As I muse over the sometimes-empty tables at this friendly restaurant, I think, even the soup and salad are better than they have to be. The greens are a mix of fresh leaf lettuces, purple cabbage and carrots dressed in my choice of chunky blue cheese vinaigrette, while the soup — ladled out of a tureen for a group — is excellent, thick with housemade flat noodles, carrots, celery, potatoes and beans in a deeply tomato-y broth.

Sure, there are lots of new places with fancier settings and much more inventive menus. But for this lovely blast-of-the-past, I say, some things should never go out of style.

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