Depot Hotel

“You can stay for dinner but you can’t stay the night.” Yeah, I can’t tell you how many heard that during my dating days, but it’s a good rule of thumb when visiting the Depot Hotel. The name is a bit of a misnomer, seeing as the First Street West landmark is one of Sonoma’s favorite restaurants and not a hotel at all – at least anymore. I’m sure there’s a colorful history that explains the switch, but frankly, the only history diners need to know is that, come December 15, proprietors Michael and Gia Ghilarducci will have been purveying mouthwatering Northern Italian cuisine for the past 20 years.

When one enters the historic plumstone building, one of the first notions to come to mind is “home.” Prepare for a fine dining experience that is something akin to a dinner party hosted by friends that you haven’t met yet. But that won’t last long – the friendly Ghilarduccis frequently make the acquaintance of their guests – and there’s a reason:

“Our business is very personal to us. When we welcome a customer here, it’s not welcoming them into your commercial establishment, it really is like welcoming them into our home – because it is our home. We live here!” said Chef Ghilarducci, a jovial sort with a big laugh, as he gestured to the upstairs quarters.

If a man’s home is his castle, we can expect the live-in-chef to prepare meals fit for a king. And they are – the menu is a scrumptious survey of Northern Italy’s “cucina rustica.” My companion (whose nickname, “The Contessa,” seems apropos to mention in this context) dined on the scaloppine al Marsala, a cut of free-range veal sautéed with a mushroom, Marsala wine and veal demi-glace sauce. In a word, “Perfetto!” She proceeded the entrée with a fiori di salmone affumicato, rosettes of paper thin slice of chilled, smoked salmon served with sour cream, Tobikko caviar and sliced red onions, capers and lemon, which she found a refreshing and tantalizing start.

Likewise, I enjoyed the medaglione alla francese, center-cut medallions of filet mignon expertly sautéed with fresh mushrooms in a superbly savory red wine reduction sauce. The meat was excellently prepared, medium-rare, and managed to be both hearty and delicate at the same time. And the sauce! I should remind that I’ve been conducting a sort of informal survey of such sauces and my admission of this to Ghilarducci dovetailed into spirited conversation we had about the virtues of Italian wine for both the casual dinner-time imbiber as well as for cooking.

“I think when you use the California wines, they’re so fruity and so overboard many times that they don’t really work well,” opined Ghilarducci.

I agreed and interjected “When I want a reduction sauce I want a sauce not a wine on a plate.”
“All you do is taste the intense fruitiness of the wine, you don’t get that subtlety. Italian wines have that combination of earthy minerality and herbaceousness and not that forward-fruit, which is a big difference,” said Ghilarducci. “Californian wines are starting to come around now, but not as much as Italian wines. What can you say – they’ve been doing it longer,” he laughed.

Of course, this is coming from a man who spoke Italian before English when growing up in San Francisco’s North Beach – the famed old world neighborhood noted for its Italian eateries and where Ghilarducci spent the first part of his career. Needless to say, Italian wines are well-represented on the wine list, as are those that are locally produced (my companion and I split a bottle of a Sonoma County’s own St. Francis Merlot, a fine pairing for sure, but after talking with Ghilarducci I was a little embarrassed not to have gone the vino route).

To finish, I luxuriated with the torta gianduia, a sponge cake layered with hazelnuts and Mascarpone cream, speckled with Torani hazelnut syrup and topped with whipped cream and a swirl of caramel sauce. Try this dessert with a port. It will help you get up the nerve to ask if the Ghilarduccis have a room to rent.