Chef Christian Caiazzo didn’t spend 35 years behind the stoves of Michelin-starred restaurants to become a barista, but that’s where the former owner of Point Reyes’ celebrated Osteria Stellina has found himself — slinging cappuccinos and lattes in downtown Petaluma. And he’s OK with that.
Standing behind the espresso machine at his new bakery cafe, Stellina Pronto, Caiazzo is back in the game, pumping out orders. After closing their critically acclaimed restaurant in August 2020, citing the pandemic and other pressures, Caiazzo and his wife, Katrina Fried, opened the ever-evolving Italian bakery early this summer. Humbled by the pandemic loss, Caiazzo and Fried are among the millions of restaurateurs urgently trying to figure out how to run a restaurant in a world that no longer supports traditional restaurant business models.
“This is me reinventing myself,” he said recently at the cafe, as he made a perfect foam with extra-rich milk from Straus Family Creamery. It is, admittedly, pretty delightful.
The cafe, which eventually will include a wood-fired oven for pizzas and piadine, meatball subs and chicken Parmesan, is a concept Caiazzo said he’s been working on for the last three years.
“I asked myself how I could do something different to make money and be profitable and also make food,” he said. “The pandemic and closing my restaurant sped that process up.”
The couple took over the former Bovine Bakery on Kentucky Street in March 2020, planning to simultaneously run the new Osteria and Toby’s Coffee Bar in Point Reyes and the new bakery.
“And then everything exploded,” Caiazzo said of the pandemic regulations that closed restaurants, slowed construction and permitting and left him and many other restaurateurs wondering what do to next.
A new plan
On a recent Sunday morning, customers steadily streamed through the bakery cafe, eager to get their hands on still-warm morning buns, chocolate hazelnut cornettos, olive oil cakes and cookies. There is also warm focaccia, buns filled with pastry cream and an ever-revolving lineup of Italian-inspired sweets and savories. Sandwiches and salads appear later in the day.
Fried is the face of the operation, running the register, coordinating a handful of front-of-house staff and helping to design the retail space that the couple remodeled themselves. The shelves that hold tinned fish, Linea Caffe coffee and other Italian packaged foods, as well as eating counters inside, are wood slabs repurposed from Osteria Stellina’s bar.
Fried also makes sure each new dish that arrives on the counter looks picture-perfect. There’s a reward to lingering a bit just to see what comes out next from the kitchen.
“We’re preparing instead of cooking things to order,” Caiazzo said. “We make 18 sandwiches at a time, we put them out and we make something else.”
There’s no table service, no line cooks. The staff is limited and the focus is on high-efficiency output to keep costs low. Don’t confuse Stellina Pronto with a mass-production operation, because Caiazzo is passionate about Slow Food, high-quality ingredients and supporting the regional food system. They buy much of their produce from Green String Farm in Petaluma and local farm markets.
So how does it all pencil out? There’s no road map, so Caiazzo is constantly tinkering.
Stationed at the ovens in the back, Pastry Chef Alison Cavallaro looked exhausted as she pushed tray after tray of bread and pastry into the oven.
She started 4 a.m., and she explained the process as a sort of dance. Something is always proofing or baking or in production. Her hands slid over a tray of focaccia straight out of the oven, smothering it with sauteed lemon, olive oil and herbs. A tray of cinnamon rolls scented the air. By 11 a.m., she had already worked seven nonstop hours.
Ironically, Stellina Pronto was never supposed to be a bakery.
“It was mainly a pizza concept,” Caiazzo said. “But when we closed Osteria, we also lost our supplier of baked goods for Toby’s Coffee Bar. So we expanded morning prep and baking for Pronto cafe as well.” The large kitchen at Stellina Pronto was a perfect space to create a bakery for both businesses. And that, he said, was a boon as the planned wood-fired pizza oven sits idle waiting for permits to operate the high-temperature cooker with a specialized vent. That could take anywhere from weeks to months.
He’s not worried, though, because he has plenty more ideas for tasty treats, like the pork buns he made that morning with Niman Ranch pork and brioche dough. And locals are eating it up.
“The support we’ve received from Petaluma has exceeded our every expectation,” said Fried as Caiazzo continued filling drink orders behind the espresso machine. “We’re working our hearts out to keep up with demand, and we’re having a ball.”
23 Kentucky St., Petaluma, stellinapronto.com. Open Thursday through Monday from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.