My family moved a fair amount during my childhood, from Brooklyn to Sunbury, then across the continent to California, enough to enroll me in four, different grammar schools in three, different states by the time I was 10. Now, at 25 years of age, the pendulum still swings in favor of nomadism, and I’ve lived in my fair share of places – not as many as some, I’m sure, but a respectable amount nevertheless – and I can say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that I have lived in more places, for longer stretches of time, than many Petaluma residents combined. Despite all wayward adventures, though, those Petalumans may understand something I have yet to fully accept: Petaluma is home.
See, Petaluma is a small town, and I mean a small town in the truest sense of the word, without it being off the radar, like nearby Valley Ford, whose community boasts a delicate, scant 200 head. Petaluma is small – growing, to be sure, but still small – and the people who grow up here tend to look outward, toward San Francisco and beyond, waiting until they can get the hell away from the cattle fields, the three street Downtown hub, and the quiet, but comforting malaise that keeps Petaluma afloat in its dreamy, destination bubble. People not native to the area often discover Petaluma after many years living in other locales, settling down in beautifully rustic Crafstman homes or cottages of the Victorian ilk that pepper the Petaluma hillsides. The golden, wheaten hills that halo the town provide a stunning backdrop to many an artist – of which there are many in town – but they also strangely eclipse any climatic warmth in surrounding areas, keeping Petaluma awash with interminably foggy mornings, a biting chill, and the occasional cold, sleeting downpour. But, on those increasingly rare, hot days, Petaluma alights with candyfloss clouds of pink and purple and blue, and with such a bright tint to everything that the surrounding hillsides outside the city limit seem dark, as if all light is coming to Petaluma.
The citizens of Petaluma are a secure and gregarious bunch, enjoying short bursts of conversation with strangers, and enjoying the long, meandering lunch at Water Street Bistro in that Bay Area pastiche of stretchy pants, Dansko clogs, and Patagonia fleece. To their credit, they are highly supportive of community measures, of the arts, and they barely seem to bat an eye when dealing with teenage shenanigans (though, they may prefer not to see Kevin Harris painted everywhere). They’re loyal, too, almost to a fault, wanting to keep Petaluma pristine and unadulterated by large retailer chains, or suburban development. The Petaluma streets, even, are watched over by their protective eyes despite being so puckered with pock marks, craggy ridges and sunken crevasses as to be downright cavernous.
Downtown Petaluma is the highlight of the town, prettily bisected by the normally brackish waters of the Petaluma River. There are several docking points along the river’s edges, one leading to the cobblestone perimeter of Water Street, another flush with the Petaluma Yacht Club, and they all boast a near permanent roster of boats, their owners always inexplicably absent. A drawbridge along D street marks the end of the downtown river district, and despite being one of only two gateways across the river from downtown, it notoriously backs up traffic just so one, lone yacht can drift lazily toward the far reaches of Schollenberger Park. That, and the ridiculously ineffective, and completely unnecessary traffic light the city installed just over a year ago at the intersection of D and 1st.
When outsiders come into town, they invariably come to dine at one of the many fine restaurants in town. Central Market has become the de rigueur place to eat in past years, with their fine menu of Seared Eastern Sea Scallops with Spring Vegetable & Bacon Hash with sherry brown butter, and the equally delectable Wild CA White Sea Bass over Ratatouille and Basil Potato Puree in olive butter. Their desserts, that I have tried so far, are nothing exceptional save for a simple platter of the most exquisite cookies, including a crumbly one that sandwiches a thick layer of gooey dulce de leche that melts almost instantly into a buttery pool in your mouth. The ambiance of Central Market only serves to highlight the food, the mood one of industrial, farmhouse chic, with some modern flairs. The exposed, wood-burning oven is the centerpiece of the room, seen from all angles, with the chefs scurrying constantly across its face, and the floor, seemingly wooden at first, is actually pressed and highly laquered corkboard, interlaced with industrial wood shavings. A few bar stools lining one window break up the seating monotony, as does the popular, eagerly reserved window seating that comfortably fits four people on its plump cushions. Local artwork reflects the local foods presented on the menu, and Chef Tony Najiola boasts a true chef bravado unlike any I’ve witnessed before. Braggadocio, even.
Other local favorites include Graziano’s and Cucina Paradiso, for upscale, and exceptional Italian dining, with Volpi’s nearby for strictly heavy, Italian family fare. At Volpi’s there is a “family style” option where in addition to a main meal – of ample butter and ample portions – you also get a large salad, a large side order of a cream sauce pasta, and a large minestrone soup. The dark, heavily slatted wood interior reflects the home-style menu, as do the many deer heads and strange paraphernalia that colorfully paint an eccentric woodsmen motif in contrast to the quintessentially cheery, red and white checked tablecloths. A cavernous back room usually overlooked by the casual onlooker is actually a hideaway bar, with more overbearing and darkly threatening animal heads towering above you, and a defeated-looking, worn down organ in a corner across from the bar. The animal mantels, surely, are an odd and slightly unwelcoming presence in the bar (a Petaluma trend, animal heads also flourishing in taxidermal numbers at nearby Andresen’s), as are many other odds things, including the scruffy and squat bar lady, herself, squinting at you through dusty, vintage spectacles, but it is the ceiling that proves to be the oddest thing of all. The ceiling, being so high, is unlikely to be the first thing you notice. But, upon closer inspection, you’ll probably stare at it all night. It’s covered in dollar bills, with small, metal dots scattered about on each one. The owner of Volpi’s, a most elusive man, enjoys playing the accordion, and when he receives tips for his excellent music, he sticks them with a tack, and in one, mighty flourish, swings the bill up with such strength that the attached tack solidly sticks in the ceiling. At least, that’s what people say.
Water Street Bistro is another family joint, albeit a bit more debonair in its presentation. Customers enjoy a slight Parisian flair with the blue painted bistro chairs and tables situated outside, to better enjoy summer days along the Petaluma River water front. The menu is fairly stagnant it seems, but there’s no reason to change it: the food is always delicious and far healthier feeling than most other Petaluma establishments, with options like Salade Nicoise, a Chicken Salad sandwich that feels remarkably light on the mayonnaise, and other fresh soups, smoothies, and lunch entrees. It helps immensely that all the bread used is outstanding, no doubt sourced from the local bread phenom Della Fattoria, just a block up the street on Petaluma Boulevard. The front counter is a mini bakery unto itself, clad right to its laminate edge with tiered rack and glass containers full of quiches, savory and sweet tarts, cookies, croissants, biscotti, cream cheese and blueberry pastries, muffins, and other sweets to complete the motley arrangement. Children who know the owner often walk to the counter and plunge their hands with ease, you could say, right into the cookie jar as if it were no different than opening the pantry at home. Bright, warm colors keep the interior lively, as do the handwritten chalkboards, the stools, the local fliers, and the unmatched assortment of tables and chairs that maintain the homey, cafe vibe.
Leaving downtown, neighborhoods crisscross and bisect each other, with Washington (becoming Bodega), D, and I streets etching deep delineations in the seamless flow of the town – lines that divide the West side of Petaluma into, I could coyly say, deeply distinct personalities…
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to be continued.
Tags: About Petaluma, An Ode to Petaluma, Central Market, Cucina Paradiso, Graziano's, Petaluma, Petaluma dining, Petaluma Restaurant Reviews, Petaluma restaurants, Volpi's Restaurant, Water Street Bistro