Downtown Petaluma’s Stellina Pronto offers ‘elevated, East Coast Italian’ worth getting excited about
The long, but expeditiously advancing line of craving customers was the first thing we noticed when approaching Stellina Pronto. on a recent Friday morning. We would come to learn that lines are the norm, regardless of the time of day, but the delay tends to be short and the pause in the midst of our busy day is usually welcome and is always worth it wait.
Stellina has brought back a taste of vibrance to the eddy that is the slight bend in the road, where downtown’s 4th Street transitions into Kentucky Street. It harkens back to a vitality not seen at this corner since the beloved Bovine Bakery left the scene at 23 Kentucky St. several years ago.
Co-owners Christian Caiazzo and Katrina Fried work the front of the house with aplomb, greeting every customer who enters.
There is genuine harmony to the way the couple work together. I hesitate to call it a dance because those often involve fits and starts. Their interactions with each other, their staff and their guests are more like a relaxing classical concerto – it is constantly in motion, with ebbs and flows but is never rushed or worried.
Best known locally for his Osteria Stellina and Toby’s Coffee Bar in Point Reyes Station, Caiazzo grew up in Suffield, Connecticut, just south of Springfield, Massachusetts.
“I baked as a kid, following my mom’s recipes” Caiazzo said.
His first restaurant job was at age 14 at the local country club and would soon expand into nearby Boston, where he attended college, with the hopes of getting a degree in accounting.
He soon found that his penchant for food was greater than his passion for numbers and so he left school for the restaurant life, eventually moving to New York City, where he worked at such iconic restaurants as Union Square Café. As a young man though, he had a desire for adventure and so destiny would find him going west, crossing the country with a friend, and eventually settling in San Francisco, a food mecca, even in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“At the time, it was much harder to find a restaurant job than it is today,” Caiazzo said. “I bought a dress shirt and tie and would walk around asking people what the best restaurant around was and would then go there and apply.”
After a car accident in 2001 that would eventually lead to multiple back surgeries and long convalescence, Caiazzo moved to Point Reyes Station to recover. Due to the rigors of the kitchen, he put his work as a chef on hold and took a job at Cowgirl Creamery behind the cheese counter. He would remain there for three years, getting to know all the local food producers. He and his first wife would go on to have two children while living in Point Reyes, and after several other food industry jobs, open Toby’s Coffee Bar, which Caiazzo still runs inside of Toby’s Feed Barn today, with the help of the bakery at Stellina Pronto.
“I was finally able to put all my ideas into practice,” Caiazzo said. “After working in a lot of restaurants, I wanted to see if my ideas on how to run things would work, and Toby’s proved that they would.”
However, it was his opening of the now-shuttered Osteria Stellina, across the street from Toby’s, that really allowed Caiazzo to spread his wings.
“We didn’t even have a shoestring budget when we opened – it was more like just that plastic tip at the end of the shoestring,” he joked.
It was 2008 and the country was headed for the worst economic times since the great depression, but Caiazzo’s attention to detail and use of fresh local ingredients did not go unnoticed.
One of those enthralled with Caiazzo’s food was Fried, a visiting New Yorker. Fried grew up in Manhattan and in her younger years was an actor, and in television and movie production, before spending two decades writing, editing and publishing award-winning, illustrated works.
Many of the books she worked on were food related, including cookbooks and titles such as “Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, Primal Cuts and Cooking with Italian Grandmothers.” In fact, the reason she and Caiazzo first met was that she worked with three Bay Area authors, two of whom lived in Petaluma.
In 2009, Fried was working with Douglas Gayeton, author of “Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town” and needed to be closer to Petaluma than New York City so rented a house a few miles north of Point Reyes Station.
“The downside was that the house had a mouse problem, so I couldn’t cook at home,” Fried says. “That meant a lot of eating out, which is how I discovered Osteria Stellina. I was so impressed with the food that I was telling travel and food magazine friends that they should write about this place.”