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.”

Caiazzo and Fried did not meet for another month or two, but when they did, they felt an immediate bond.

Within a year of meeting, Fried had shifted gears, and coasts, and was working remotely from Point Reyes Station, both as a freelancer and as the North American editor/publisher of a German travel book company. Due to Caiazzo’s shared custody of his two children, the family relocated to Petaluma in 2013. Caiazzo and Fried would marry a year later.

In August 2020, after keeping the restaurant alive for months through the pandemic, Caiazzo decided it was time to close. His final goodbye letter “On closing Osteria Stellina” in the Point Reyes Light was as heartwarming as it was heart wrenching.

But that wouldn’t be the final chapter for Stellina. How could it? “Stellina” means “little star” in Italian, and is Caiazzo’s daughter’s middle name.

“Ever since moving to Petaluma, it had always been in the back of Christian’s mind to open up a place here,” remembers Fried.

Enter Stellina Pronto.

They started baking in the fall of 2020, but it was not until June of 2021 that they opened their doors to Petaluma customers, and have been receiving not just rave, but passionate reviews since.

“The reception here in Petaluma has been overwhelming. It’s more than we could have ever hoped for,” he said.

The couple already seems to know the majority of their customers, but that is not a surprise after witnessing their interactions for just a few minutes. While watching them, we see Caiazzo speaking Spanish to Margarita, an employee who has been with him for over a decade. And then there is the customer who hands over an additional $5 – “I owe you from the other day,” she says.

One would never guess that Fried has no formal background in the restaurant world, however, clearly is made for it and in a very special way. Her interest in interacting with all her customers and really getting to know them probably would not work in a big-city restaurant but in a smalltown bakery like Stellina, it is just what the chef ordered, and what local customers gravitate to.

We recently stopped in to Stellina for an olive oil cake. After confirming with us that this was to share at a party, Fried asked us to hold tight while she took it in the back. She returned moments later, having nestled the cake into a nice box, and wrapped a beautiful bow around it. She also recommended an easy topping of whipped mascarpone with Grand Marnier.

Although others have tried to run a bakery in this same location since Bovine’s departure, none have been able to create the family friendly downhome vibe that Stellina Pronto has.

Caiazzo perfectly describes Stellina’s cuisine as ‘elevated East Coast Italian.’

“We are not strictly “Italian” cuisine, but certainly pay homage in that direction.”

I could not agree with him more, as I stood there listening to him, while enjoying a meatball sandwich I had purchased for lunch. It was clearly a meatball sandwich, through and through, but with better bread, cheese and meat than your average sub. However, it was not overdone or too highbrow. If craving a meatball sandwich, this will definitely fill the bill, and is likely to top my list of favorites simply because each part is slightly elevated above your run of mill, yet still delicious, meatball sandwich.

“That is Christian’s culinary sensibility,” adds Fried, while never skipping a beat as she continues to help the seemingly never-ending line of customers. “He simply makes great food without a lot of fuss about it.”

Whereas Della Fattoria leans towards the French side of things, Stellina Pronto is a nice complement in that it leans more towards the Italian. Both are loyal to their roots, but also stay true to our local flavors and palettes. If Petaluma were not already a baker’s mecca, Stellina Pronto will certainly help it become one.

Stellina relies on three main doughs for their baked goods – coretti, croissant, and brioche. The coretti works well with both savory and sweet, but with a hint of lemon zest, tends to work best with sweet pastries. The croissant dough is used for things such as the morning buns and sausage rolls, and the brioche is the perfect bread for their pork pun, which is a recent special addition to their menu. The bun’s Niman Ranch pork is is braised for six hours with anchovies, garlic and veggies and should not be missed whenever it pops up on the specials menu.

The pastry case is clearly the main event, and throughout most of the day, is a piece of artwork unto itself. With a keen eye for aesthetics, Fried strategically keeps the case stocked with plenty of eye candy, pulling from racks of freshly baked goods as often as possible, circulating through items during lulls in the line.

“We have been very lucky so far,” says Fried. “Everything we are making seems to have fans, so we are rarely left with anything at the end of the day, and when we are, it is never the same thing.”

We tried just about everything in the pastry case, and love them all. The straight up cornetto is the Italian version of a croissant, and has an added touch of eggs, cardamom and citrus zest. The Nutella cornetto is heavier than most of the other pastries, but it’s prefect because that’s what a sweet tooth like me is expecting from a croissant filled with sweetened hazelnut cream.

The unassuming morning bun is light and slightly sweet, with deliciously chewy folds. The scones are some of the best we have tasted. They were dense enough to satisfy, but not the hard and dry hockey pucks that many bakeries turn out. Stellina also offers something called a bostock, which is kind of like an Italian version of French toast.

The fresh fig crostata was halfway between a scone and a croissant, often comes with other fruit fillings, and can be pre-ordered in a larger size in order to feed a whole party. And the bear claw is beyond reproach and is likely the best we have ever had.

Cardamom bun is subtly sweet and is on the doughy side, reminding me of Jewish Hallah bread, and is perfectly topped with rock sugar. Somehow, this one walks the fine line between sweet and savory.

“That’s my Swedish roots,” says Fried. “I have been making cardamom buns at home since I was a kid. I’m thrilled to see them so well received.”

The pastry puffs come in both sweet and savory and we tried both. The ham, cheese and egg was a prefect breakfast treat, while the lemon, with a healthy layer of ricotta cheese, was the perfect alternative for this lemon bar lover. We still cannot decide if the corn custard puff is a savory or a sweet treat, but are enamored by it, so will order it every time we see it.

Although everything in and on their pastry case looks appetizing, the lily white mini cheese cakes certainly stood out. As we found throughout our multiple Stellina samplings, everything they offer is an elevated version of the original, however this cheese cake goes even a step further. Because it is made from a cream cheese base, Fried aptly describes it, “as NY-style – just a very luxurious silky version.” The ingredients are classic, but the execution is exquisite.

Stellina also has an impressive number of fresh daily tortas, focaccia, salads, soups and sandwiches, making them a great new lunch spot. We had both a salad and a couple of sandwiches across our visits and were thrilled with everything we tried. Named “Vera”, after Caiazzo’s grandmother, Stellina’s pizza oven is sure to turn out pizza worthy of her name and heritage, just as soon as the permitting and construction are complete.

After selling to a new owner, Bovine Bakery quickly declined in quality and service and in short order, closing their doors back in 2017. They were followed by one or two lackluster bakeries that tried to bring this space back to its former glory but failed. The final Yelp reviewer prior to their closing prophetically stated that he highly doubted that the new owners would succeed, “unless they turned things around, like pronto.”

Sure enough, Caiazzo’s and Fried’s Stellina Pronto is exactly what Petalumans have been clamoring for. Both the excellent food and the sense of community created by this new bakery will gather a wide following and is sure to endure for years to come.

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