Think Occidental, and many people think “Italian,” for the long-standing restaurants that serve generously portioned, family-friendly dinners in this small town tucked away in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley.
Perhaps Occidental's best-known Italian eatery is the Union Hotel (3703 Main St., Occidental, 707-874-3555). Founded as a railroad saloon and boarding house in 1879, it's now home to a lovely Italian café, bakery, and pizzeria, which has been run by the property’s owners since 1925.
The charm is palpable, from the red-checkered tablecloth tables set with candles dripping over Chianti bottles, to portraits of the original owners on the walls, and retro touches like a jukebox.
Menu favorites include chicken piccata, grilled rib-eye steak with mushrooms, "margarita" pizza, and mouthwatering minestrone. For those who can’t choose, the spaghetti/ravioli combo smothered in Bolognese tastes like it came straight from Nonni’s kitchen.
For more Italian, Negri's Original Italian Restaurant (3700 Bohemian Highway, Occidental, 707-823-5301) has been a local institution since 1943, when Joe Negri Sr. traveled from Venice to America.
After working at the Waldorf Astoria and serving as personal chef to movie idol Rudolph Valentino, he moved on to this railroad town in the redwoods.
The fourth generation of his family runs things today, serving satisfying classics such as chicken Marsala, gnocchi in pesto sauce, angel-haired pasta with shrimp, and eggplant parmesan.
Most menu items are made in house and from scratch; in season, they feature citrus, fruits, vegetables, and herbs grown on the family's nearby ranch.
All this in a vintage trattoria ambience, complete with checkered tablecloths.