But since its new owner, Sausalito resident Elizabeth Nebot, took over in November and hired Tuscan-born chef Elena Fabbri to run the kitchen, the little restaurant has had a makeover. The interior feels quieter just on the basis of decor. It's not as funky as it was. The walls are now a creamy custard color painted in mottled strokes. Black wrought-iron candle scones hold votive candles that are lit when twilight comes; these throw a subtle light.
The overall effect is of a rustic neighborhood restaurant somewhere on the outskirts of a small Italian city.
Most diners opt for the little front room, which is where the action is. A grand piano occupies one corner. Jazz musicians play here most nights; live music starts after 7 p.m.
There are a few tables next to the music set-up and right in front of the entrance. A couple more tables hug a wall sideways to a glass display case filled with cookies and salads.
The back room, a high-ceilinged cube, feels like another world. It's quiet, almost monastically austere, with vined-over windows and a sense of isolation from the activities up front.
Fabbri's food is as close as I've come in Marin to the type of meals I've eaten in the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside. Real Italian food in small owner-operated trattorias is rarely about sauces and layers of complexity. It's about simplicity and fresh ingredients combined to make a light yet filling as well as nourishing meal.
True rustic Italian cooking, for me, is as simple and wholesome as a hand-built stone wall.
A meal here begins with the type of free antipasto I'd expect to find as a starter in someone's home. Thin strips of house-baked warm focaccia, gritty with sea salt, were served with wide ribbons of zucchini and eggplant carpaccio. These were given the lightest of cooking so they softened without losing their chewy edge. Huge black and green olives completed the gift.
Or take a salad showcasing fresh buffalo mozzarella just flown in from Italy ($9). Disks of this pillow-soft cheese were mated with sliced tomatoes and fresh basil under a light coverlet of oil and vinegar dressing. What made this work was the milky, newborn sweetness of the cheese, the fruitiness of the tomatoes and the mild pungence of the herb. A quick grind of salt and black pepper added overall sparkle. If there was anything awry, it was the temperature. Each component was just a little too cold, though the freshness was impressive.
By contrast, a raw spinach salad with a warm balsamic dressing ($10) had the right temperatures and textures. The cool spinach leaves were gently wilted under a tangy vinaigrette. Just-cooked warm twists of pancetta, a scatter of toasted walnuts, a few strands of caramelized onion and generous lumps of Gorgonzola made the spinach taste important.
While papparedelle ($18) were not made in-house, the wide ribbon noodles had the wonderfully golden flavor of semolina. They shone as a nightly special in which crumbs of Dungeness crab and slivers of sauteed zucchini were tossed with the pasta. A little olive oil was all that glossed this simple combination of foods.
Equally basic, and again, impressive in its freshness, was a pan-seared, organically grown veal chop ($23 and the most expensive dish on the menu)Ê topped with a Portobello mushroom cap and gorgonzola cheese served over warm arugula and fingerling potatoes. Each item on the plate tasted exactly like what it was; the mix was harmonious.
The same of another special of pan-seared halibut moistened with a Meyer lemon and caperberry vinaigrette ($21) on a bed of mixed green lettuces with more of those buttery fingerling potatoes. Here again was pure simplicity, with the odd nugget of bright olive or astringent caperberry as the only strong flavors to offset the sweet, moist fish.
There are richer, more complex-sounding dishes on the menu, such as gnocchi Caledonia ($15) with prawns in a light brandy curry sauce; lasagne with red wine, braised meat and besciamella sauce ($12); chicken saltimbocca sauteed with prosciutto and provolone with mashed potatoes and vegetables ($16).
Desserts ($6) are mostly made in-house. I liked the pear and chocolate cake, a wedge of buttery, crusty cake holding little chunks of pear and streaks of bittersweet chocolate that sometimes bake into the batter or hold their smeary own. It just needed a little whipped cream or vanilla gelato for balance. Ask for some on the side.
Fabbri's cooking is earnest and comforting. I felt as if I'd dined in a Tuscan home. It's honest food, straightforwardly prepared with ingredients that were a pleasure to bite into.
-Cuisine: Rustic Italian
-Service: Excellent, servers are mostly Italian
-Noise level: Quieter in back room, front room features live music
-Recommended dishes: Spinach salad with warm balsamic dressing, pancetta, walnuts and gorgonzola; pappardelle with Dungeness crab; warm pear and chocolate cake
-Liquor selection: Italian and American wine list, beers
-Heart-healthy and vegetarian selections: Some
-Parking: Free nearby street parking
-Wheelchair access: Yes
-Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily
-Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
-Summary: Under new management since November, Caffe DiVino now offers the kind of fresh, unassuming country fare you'd expect to get in Tuscany. The menu features standards and daily specials from Italian chef Elena Fabbri. The owner and most of the servers are female, too, making the overall atmosphere here more nurturing than in many restaurants.
37 Caledonia St. @ Bridgeway
Sausalito, CA, 94965
PH: (415) 331-9355
6:30 am - 10:00 pm Daily
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