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Italian classics at Caffe Giostra

Tucked away in an unassuming strip mall, Caffe Giostra is not very easy to find, as I discovered when a little more than two years ago my GPS directed me to what must be their back door on the other side of the unassuming shopping mall where it is located.

But I found it, and because I believe that restaurant gems should be available for everyone to enjoy, I am here to tell you more so you too can be in-the-know for this cute cafe.

It is located to the rear of the shopping plaza most locals call OSH, just at the end of the Orchard Supply Hardware building.

I have eaten here a number of times, but not enough to be a regular, so I believe the service I have experienced is normal for this tiny place. It seems they are always busy, so a reservation is definitely a good idea, although we have gone without reservations and been seated in a reasonable amount of time.

The first time I went there I was looking for a place that had outdoor dining so I could bring a little dog with me. That worked out fine, and I have seen other patrons with dogs at other times.

This is one of those restaurants that immediately brings you a basket of delicious sourdough bread and a small ramekin of herbed olives, on the house. There are bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on each table so you can make your own bread dip.

Most recently we dined here for both lunch and dinner, and thoroughly enjoyed both meals. For lunch I ordered the Vegetarian Panini ($8.50) that consisted of grilled eggplant, grilled summer squash, grilled onions and roasted red peppers with fresh mozzarella, on a ciabatta roll spread with delicious pesto. The whole sandwich was baked until the bread was crackling crunchy on the outside and soft within, and the cheese nicely melted.

I am still drooling over this sandwich, and cannot believe I ate the whole thing, but I just could not stop at half because it was just so good. It was served with a small mixed green salad with vinaigrette, and some cut up and nicely ripe honeydew melon.

My husband had the spinach salad ($8.50) with fresh fennel, fresh beets, goat cheese, toasted walnuts and balsamic vinaigrette. He chose to have the protein add-on of grilled giant shrimp ($6.95) and they were well worth the extra cost. The entire salad was spot-on in both taste and presentation.

When we returned for dinner there were four of us so we were able to try more menu items. We began with Antipasto Misto ($19.95), a mixed appetizer plate of prosciutto, smoked salmon with capers, fresh mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses with balsamic drizzle, grilled eggplant, grilled summer squash, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, arugula and salami. The menu says it serves two or more, and it was plenty for the four of us.

We also ordered a few glasses of wine, and we were astounded at the size of the glass and the pours, making these glasses of wine some of the best wine values in Petaluma. While their wine list is not huge, the wines were all tasty, and very reasonably priced. The list is appropriate for the size of the restaurant, and that is a smart thing for a restaurateur to do.

The entrées we sampled included the Linguine Vongole (linguine with clams) ($17.95) and this was exemplary. The pasta was perfectly cooked, and the garlic, white wine and extra-virgin olive oil sauce was expertly prepared. There were both clams in the shell, and a huge quantity of chopped clam pieces as well, making this one of the most substantial versions of one of my favorite pastas that I have ever encountered.

One of our guests had the Lasagna of the Day ($18.95). It was made with mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses and Bolognese sauce. He was extremely happy with it, and the forkful I managed to try had nice thin handmade pasta sheets that made it oh-so-tender.

Another guest enjoyed the Vitello Marsala ($22.95) a plate of sautéed confinement-free veal medallions with mushroom-marsala sauce. It was served with piping hot mashed potatoes, and a vegetable medley that included Brussels sprouts, something that made our friend very happy as she rarely finds nicely cooked sprouts in restaurants as an included side dish.

The fourth entrée we enjoyed was the Gnocchi al Piacere ($16.95). These potato dumplings were light and delicious. They can be ordered with pesto, marinara, Bolognese or Gorgonzola sauce. We chose the Gorgonzola, which was rich, creamy and nicely flavored with this ripe blue cheese.

The desserts sounded too good to pass up, so we ordered the freshly stuffed cannoli with pistachios, the Profiteroles (small cream puffs filled with ice cream and topped with chocolate and caramel sauce), and the limoncello sorbet. My favorite was the plate of four profiteroles because they were perfectly done — just the right size, nicely tasty choux pastry, just the right temperature delicious vanilla ice cream, and sauces that stayed on them so you got some in every bite. I would go back there just for that scrumptious dessert.

We were presented with a complimentary small glass of port for those of us who ordered wine – a lovely parting touch. The service was swift and professional, especially given how busy it was. We were in and out, having had three courses, in less than 90 minutes. The service at lunch a few days earlier was equally quick, a great attribute for a restaurant surrounded by business offices. We were finished then in less than 45 minutes, which was just perfect, and yet we never felt rushed on either occasion.

Caffe Giostra offers deliciously prepared classic Italian food, an adequate wine list and very good service. The tables are crowded, so be prepared to get to know others in the restaurant, as the space is very small. There is virtually no place to wait indoors if they are backed up for seating. Those idiosyncrasies add to the authenticity in my opinion. It is a gem well worth seeking out.