A Taste of Negri's Italian Dinners
On the brink of its 75th birthday, Negri's Italian Dinners in the small town of Occidental is one Sonoma County’s legendary restaurant pioneers.
Sonoma County is populated with many remarkable Italian restaurants – and why not, because starting in the 1870s, Italians arrived here to work in lumber mills, railroads, tanneries, and quarries.
Within a decade, the immigrants had developed a “Little Italy” in Santa Rosa, and within another decade, the industrious folks were running successful hotels, restaurants, and wineries that continue to thrive today.
Negri’s is still family-owned, as it has been since Joe and Theresa Negri opened it on the Bohemian Highway in 1943. Often, you’ll see Joe and Theresa’s great-granddaughters Amanda and Tori Negri in the house, greeting guests.
And the place still serves much of the same cuisine that’s made it so popular all the years, offering satisfying classics in big portions at low prices.
Split between a cozy, 20-table dining room and a more boisterous lounge dubbed Joe’s Bar, the vibe is old school charm. Quaint dining room décor includes red and white checked tablecloths topped with wax-dripped Chianti bottles, ball lamps painted in Italian flag colors of red, white and green, and cheerful yellow walls.
For the lounge, the mood is retro-hip, with curved wood bar, antique black-and-white photos, and a big stone fireplace. Just the place to while away some time over an ice-cold local beer with your buddies.
You can order any dish as a solo entrée. But there’s great value in the family style dining, with full dinners including shareable servings of first-rate minestrone soup stocked with homemade noodles; a mixed green salad (get the robust blue cheese vinaigrette); antipasto nibbles of marinated peppers, veggies, herbed chickpeas and red beans; sliced salami; and French bread and butter. Some entrées include a few ravioli, too.
And what superb ravioli they are (full dinner $23, entrée $16). House-made pasta is overstuffed with moist crumbly beef and pork, Swiss chard, fresh herbs, and Parmesan, waiting to be dressed in your choice of chunky Bolognese, marinara, Alfredo, or pesto sauce.
These days, you can tuck into gluten-free pasta and kale salads, but really, let the kitchen do what it loves, and get the staples. That means joys like polenta and herbed meatballs smothered in Bolognese with peppery arugula and shaved Parmesan ($12); mama’s baked lasagna piled high with beef, sausage, mushroom, onion, gooey mozzarella and ricotta cheese ($24/$17); or chicken Parmesan, in a leftovers-guaranteed portion of boneless chicken breast, melting mozzarella, Parmesan and marinara over angel hair pasta ($26/$19).
Be sure, too, to order a side of the garlic-garlic-garlic bread, the crunchy crust toasted and the soft interior flooded with butter (quarter loaf $6, half loaf $9, full loaf $14). It goes especially well with Negri’s seafood, such as the Pasta Pescatore that’s a periodic special (handmade fettuccine tumbled with manila clams, mussels, and prawns in red pepper cream sauce).
Pizza is another excellent choice, served as 12-inch pies on good chewy crust topped with goodies like Occidental’s own Panizzera Meat Co. spicy Italian sausage, egg, and mushrooms. For wonderfully layered flavor, the Capperi is a particular favorite, bringing tomato sauce, prosciutto, fried capers, huge dollops of burrata, and crisp arugula ($17).
Sonoma County wines and local beers are well represented, such as Russian River Valley County Line Zinfandel or Healdsburg Racer 5 IPA. For a modern cocktail, check out the new list with sips like The Solstice, of Hangar 1 Buddha’s Hand vodka, ginger, cranberry, lemon and sparkling water. Amanda Negri created the drinks herself.
The family grows fruits, vegetables and herbs at its own Negri Ranch two miles from the restaurant. And the restaurant boasts an entire room dedicated to making fresh pasta onsite.
The homemade sweets include terrific apple fritters ($5), with the battered fruit deep fried crisp and dusted in powdered sugar. Hot and a bit juicy, it’s sweet but still manages to be a light finish.
Details: Negri’s Italian Dinners, 3700 Bohemian Highway, Occidental, 707-874-0301. Open 4-9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.