pretty amazing dinners. But by the time we got to Santa Rosa, we were ready for something a little simpler. It would have been fine to go for something fancier if anything had looked interesting, but the food scene in Santa Rosa looked expensive without being thrilling (after Bouchon and Zuni Cafe it was easy to be underwhelmed). So we decided to take a little drive west to an old lumber town, Occidental, and try Negri's Italian Restaurant.
I am a sucker for immigrant stories, ever since I worked at Ellis Island for a summer. I think that I am so interested in immigrant stories because they usually make me think about the improbability of people meeting and making a life somewhere, and how easy it is to lose one's way. It makes me think about the struggles gone through and sacrifices made by previous generations for their descendants. I think about the really poor people coming over from Italy with literally one small suitcase to their name, and them making a life somewhere in the U.S. where their grandkids grow up to be super spoiled, hang out at the mall, have every new technological gadget and hate everything, and it just makes me think we should all appreciate just how good we have it. It also makes me think about the psychological process of making a life somewhere and how different life is for people who live in the same place they grew up all their lives compared to people who have moved many times. Every place a person lives is a part of who they are and they would not be that person without that specific collection of experiences. I grew up in the Midwest, but after spending 6 and a half years on the east coast can you say I am Midwestern? No, not really. I like to think maybe I've grown from the experience and that I have east coast sophistication mixed with Midwestern friendliness. In the same way that someone who comes from Italy to Northern California is not quite entirely the same as people who stayed in his town in Italy and is also not quite the same as people who are from Northern California. The immigrant experience puts a person in a limbo state, not quite one thing, not quite another, waking up every day for many years feeling just a little bit off. And I know it is not like I am from India or something, but I don't say "wicked", "idear", and I pronounce "aunt" like "ant". I also say things to my childhood friends they don't understand like "Should we get some seltzer?", "You mean 'pop'?" So I am a bit of both things, in the same way that I do think there are some differences between Italian cuisine, and Italian American cuisine. A sense of place can change many things about food and people, some subtle and barely recognizable and some more obvious.
Here is the story of how the restaurant came to be, taken from their menu (I see it has typos, but that isn't my fault):
The food was pretty good. It wasn't exactly the most exciting ever - just very traditional Italian, but the fact that the food was made from recipes the grandfather brought over from Venice and that the grandchildren still owned the restaurant made me love it. I also loved the red checked tablecloths and the food carts the waitresses wheeled out to the tables. I loved the bread, the view of the redwoods and the historical hotels in town, and the rowdy locals hanging out by the bar. I loved the family photos hanging on the wall of three generations. I loved that we were at the point that was the summit and stop over point for the lumber trade, and the old west feeling in the tiny town (think "Deadwood").
There is something romantic and honeymoon appropriate about old school, very simple Italian food. We just should have ordered one plate of spaghetti like "The Lady and the Tramp".