Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
We almost didn't make it to Scopa. We headed out with the best of intentions—which, in the case of Scopa, should always include a reservation—and were just outside of Guerneville when our jolly conversation began to flag in tune with our failing engine. You know, when the usual gravelly grip of forward motion melts to nothing and you're left to drift to the skinny shoulder, frantically hitting the hazards? Suffice it to say our venerable '87 Volvo (300,000 miles and counting) wasn't quite ready to make it off the blocks.
As we traded cars, I left a rushed message on Scopa's reservation line, and off we were again, fully expecting we would be turned away. But when we arrived at the wildly popular restaurant that chef and owner Ari Rosen opened in May on the Healdsburg Plaza, there, at the end of the line of two-top tables, all crowded in like seats on a train, was our very own reserved oasis! Talk about a nice welcome. The restaurant does feel a little like a train car: narrow, a bar toward the back, diners chockablock and chatting between the tables, checking out who's eating what. The walls of rough cement and the stained concrete floor add to the lively clamor.
Scopa is Italian for "broom" or "sweep," and lends its name to a card game where you make a sweep for a full point. (My Italian friends also tell me that it means something naughty: sweeping someone off his/her feet and onto his/her back—wink, wink.) The back of Scopa's menu describes the game in detail (a deck of the cards is on sale for $10). The right side of the menu describes another sort of fun, what our Italian waiter called "true Italian food," mastered during chef Rosen's years in Tuscany.
With 13 antipasti plates ($5–$9) and such enticements as grilled peaches and purslane (a wild succulent green), polpette calabrese (spicy meatballs with smoked mozzarella), and sautéed escarole with beets and fennel, it was hard to choose. We went for the octopus terrine ($9), the thinnest slices of pressed octopus layered with green olives and roasted cherry tomatoes. The burrata cheese ($9) was a loose orb of creamy flow offset perfectly by rough (bread), nutty (arugula) and smoky (eggplant) accompaniments. The marinated pork of tonno del chianti looked so much like the tuna of its name we did a double take and then a double bite, given the fig balsamic marmellata alongside, my favorite taste of the night.
We decided to split a main course from a list of eight secondi, among them pizzas and pastas ($15–$16.50). Nonna's tomato-braised chicken ($17) was tender, nearly boneless, in a rustic sauce of tomatoes, carrots and onions, lounging on a triangle of toasted polenta. Better suited to a wintry night, perhaps, but we pretended, shivering our shoulders as they rubbed against our neighbors.
Wine is priced reasonably, sorted under the headings of Bubbly, California, Italy the North, Italy the Center, and Italy the South. My only quibble is that none but the house and sparkling wines are offered by the glass. We were "forced" to buy a bottle, and that's just too terrible, a yummy "Sivoy" Cascina La Ghersa 2005 ($27).
We were briefly tempted by the dolce ($6–$8)—peaches marinated in red wine, affogato (vanilla ice cream doused in espresso with a house-made biscotti), chocolate soufflé, and cheese plate—but decided to sweep out of there before we needed an industrial Vac-u-Max™ to move us on.
Scopa, 109-A Plaza St., Healdsburg. Open for dinner, Tuesday–Sunday. 707.433.5282.
Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.