Right after finding and lunching at Hot Dog City in downtown Santa Rosa last week, Friday's other chow serendipity was spotting Ristorante Orsi on Fifth, where Cafe Lolo used to be. I was overjoyed to find this name on an eating establishment again. You see, when I heard about Orsi in Novato closing two years ago, I wondered if I'd ever eat cannelloni again, let alone cannelloni di Orsi. I dashed inside and bubbled over with questions for the young hostess. This new location was opened two months ago by Loreno Orsi, who had been a partner in the Novato restaurant and is the son of the late, legendary Oreste Orsi. She said that fans of the Novato and even the San Francisco original had been trickling in as the news has made its way through the grapevine. This is a smaller and more intimate restaurant than Novato with a small bar in the back corner.
I put in a call to a special friend in Santa Rosa hoping she and her husband could meet me here for dinner. A few years ago, unbeknownst to me, she had found my old posting on Orsi in Novato (linked below) in a web search and was happy to return to a taste of her past. Later she shared stories of dining at the original Orsi's in San Francisco as a child, and that the cannelloni and veal piccata were her favorites. Her parents became enamored of Italian cooking and even joined the Villa Taverna social club to soak up more Italian culture. Who better to accompany me to determine whether the new place could reproduce the old recipes? Luckily, they were free for dinner.
We started off with a shared appetizer of calamari fritti. I like tentacles, but this plate seemed to have even more than its natural born proportion. This was a competent version, just a little heavy on the breading.
Her husband had the grilled radicchio and endive salad that he pronounced good and a big enough portion that all 6' 7" of him said it could be a meal in itself though he soldiered on with his order of cannelloni. We decided to split a salad, an order of cannelloni, and the braised rabbit special. The kitchen divided these for us, and the half plates were bigger than most restaurant's full-size helpings. The insalata della casa had too much baby spinach in the mix for my taste and hard tomatoes, but surprisingly I liked the chunky fresh tomato and herb salsa-like dressing.
But the real test was the cannelloni di Orsi ($13.50). Each of us took a bite, glanced around the table to see the others' reaction. I went first, "It tastes the same to me. I think it's true to Orsi." She said, "yes, it's the same as always. I have to bring my mother here." And he said, "I'm rotating this into my lunch schedule." The tender crepe, the fresh tomato sauce, the lightness of the besciamella were all reproduced faithfully. The filling seemed a bit coarser ground and still heavy on the nutmeg; that might just be a batch difference.
The braised rabbit with olives and shitake mushrooms over grilled polenta was delicious too in a rustic and old-fashioned way. The pieces of rabbit were large and quite meaty, so perhaps not from local sources, yet the meat was tender and not dried out. The olives and mushrooms were not premium grade either, however, somehow the sum was greater than the parts especially when simmered in the soulful yet light wine sauce.
Ordering wine was a challenge. The wine list has a number of Tuscan selections, but does not list the vintage for any of the wines. We instructed our server that we were only interested in 2001 and 2004, and did not want 2002 or 2003. The only way to find out the years of the bottles was for her to climb on a stool, then up on the bar counter to pull bottles out of overhead racks. She had to do this five times before we found something to order, and luckily it turned out to be an excellent choice for this meal. The 2001 Tenuta Angelini "Trerose" Vino Nobile de Montepulciano ($33) is just coming into its prime and is highly recommended.
Service is enthusiastic and friendly if a bit unpolished. Still, the warmth of a family-run establishment makes up for any lapses. I liked the more casual setting here over the cavernous Novato venue. We chatted a bit with the table next to us, and I noticed other customers visiting with their neighbors around the room. Prices are low with most entrees in the $14 to $16 range and the most expensive item is the steak or the veal chop at $21. The style of cooking harkens back to "Continental" before Northern Italian became into vogue. I'm thrilled that cannelloni de Orsi has found a new home.
Ristorante Orsi aka Orsi Restaurant
620 Fifth St.
Open for lunch and dinner
P.S. to Jim H, the lunch menu is almost as extensive as the dinner menu, however, at dinner time many more daily specials are offered.
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