Chef Ari Rosen of Healdsburg grew up foraging and cooking with his family in Ukiah, where he fell in love with being in the kitchen alongside his mom. He then worked in one Italian restaurant after another, causing him to abandon periodic thoughts of going into law or medicine.
“My parents, without realizing it, gave me the ultimate culinary training,” says the 37-year-old chef. “I came back here because of my knowledge of the abundance.”
Rosen represents a new wave of rising young chefs, restaurateurs and winemakers in Sonoma. He’s passionate about creating dishes that are authentic as well as delicious, committed to sourcing ingredients locally, and fanatical about freshness. There is an ethical quality to how he runs his menus and brings his dishes to life: no corners cut, no food processed, no sleight-of-hand substitutes. It’s all the real deal.
“Sourcing within five or even 100 miles makes a difference,” he says of his produce. “That means they were picked ripe and not ripened in a warehouse. It makes my job easier and more enjoyable.”
For Rosen, the payoff comes from the loyal support of locals, who enjoy eating his soulful Italian fare, from his Nonna’s tomato-braised chicken to his house-made ravioli. He cares, and it shows.
“He makes the food speak for itself, and that’s the biggest compliment that anybody could give a chef,” says Franco Dunn of Franco’s One World Sausages in Healdsburg. “His places are run like a family, and his customers are like family also.”
Scopa was a hit right out of the gate when it opened in 2008. Then the busy Rosen and his business partner/wife, Dawnelise, had a daughter, Serafina, now 3. In 2012, the couple launched their second restaurant, Campo Fina, off an alley behind Scopa. More casual, Campo Fina boasts an outdoor patio where guests can enjoy small plates, bocce ball and la dolce vita.
“I saw the potential,” Rosen says of the al fresco courtyard. “It was about creating a beautiful space to enjoy summery Italian fare.”
Like Scopa, Campo Fina has garnered praise for its simple, rustic dishes, from charred octopus to roasted cauliflower with pine nuts, currants and anchovies.
Strolling around town in a T-shirt, jeans and baseball cap, the down-to-earth Rosen looks more like a Brooklyn cab driver than a top toque. He’s an unpretentious extrovert with a quick, analytical mind who enjoys finding out what makes people tick.
“I’m a big people person,” he says. “So when I’m talking, I have all my attention on that person.”
But the hard-working chef is all business as soon as he enters the kitchen.
“At work, I’m just extremely focused,” he adds. “In the kitchen, my mind is like a clock.”
That focus allows Rosen to create deeply satisfying dishes that pay homage to his many mentors, including his Italian mother, Karen.
“People think I’m a crazy perfectionist or control freak in the kitchen, but then they spend time with my mom and they understand,” he says. “It’s top quality or no quality.”
Rosen’s dad, Norm, is an attorney who practices family law in Ukiah and loves to bake desserts in his spare time. When he’s not working, he bakes Italian tortes and biscotti for both Scopa and Campo Fina.
When he was 7, Rosen and his family started foraging mushrooms in the hills between Willits and Fort Bragg. His dad had already attended a camp hosted by mushroom guru David Arora for foragers ready to move beyond the nervous novice level.
“Everyone should start very cautiously,” Rosen advises. “It’s like walking into a garden and eating leaves and flowers. Some will kill you, and there’s a few that will make you sick.”
After mushrooming, the family would continue to the coast to gather mussels, then bring the bounty back and cook it up with garlic and parsley.
“That was what I loved,” Rosen says. “And it’s the same as I do now.”
After the first rainfall each fall, Rosen’s eyes mist over as the first wave of “mushroom fever” hits.
“I start dreaming of getting porcini,” he says. “In the heart of mushroom season, my eyes are scanning terrain all the time.”
When the mushrooms are popping, Rosen will rise at 4 a.m., grab his knife and compass, and head out before dawn.
“You’re in the zone, and it’s meditative, because you’re only thinking of one thing,” he says. “As soon as you find one mushroom, you’re there … The hunt is on.”
After high school in Ukiah, Rosen went hunting for his Italian roots in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, where his grandfather’s family ran a restaurant. He planned to be there for three days and ended up staying a month.
Later, after graduating from college, he returned to Italy to visit his sister in Florence. Since he had always wanted to work in a restaurant, she urged him to take the plunge.
Rosen went to one of his favorite trattorias and offered to work for free. The Italians laughed at the “stupid American.” But after two cooks got fired, Rosen ended up cooking under chef Lorenzo Torrini and never looked back.
“It was like wildfire,” he says. “Lorenzo gave me all of my technical skills and artistic flair.”
Rosen continued his studies in the “school of hard knocks” under restaurant chef Luca Pecorini, learning the history behind the dishes of Italy. By 2004, he had returned to the West Coast, eventually landing at Santi restaurant in Geyserville and working alongside chefs Dunn and Thomas Oden, Dino Bugica (now at Diavola in Geyserville) and Liza Hinman (now at Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa).
“We had so much talent going on in that kitchen,” Rosen says. “We were pushing to make the food as authentic as we could.”
When a restaurant space opened up on the Healdsburg Plaza, Rosen jumped on it, fulfilling his dream of opening his own “locals joint.”
“The hospitality business is like ‘Cheers,’” he says. “You want to come to a place where everyone knows your name.”
As different as Scopa and Campo Fina are (Scopa is cozy and warm; Campo Fina is more clean-lined and spare) inviting lighting blends with upbeat music at both to create a fun ambiance.
“There’s so much that goes into making a seamless experience,” Rosen describes. “The trick is to do it without making people notice it.”
Now rather than putting people to sleep in a lab or challenging them in a courtroom, Rosen provides his guests with terrific wine and delicious food, conversation and laughter. It’s an Old-World recipe and a joyous blend.
“I was always interested in creating ambiance and experiences with food,” says Rosen. “I just didn’t realize you could do that for a living.”