Traditional Neighborhood Italian Food
Scopa is a somewhat hidden gem of an Italian restaurant tucked into a narrow space on the north side of Healdsburg Plaza. The walls of the building are rustic wood and rough cement made with gravel from the Russian River. In the middle of a row of upscale shops, it looks like a place out of time, from another century. If you’re looking for it, you’ll have to know where you’re going or stumble upon it because the sign above the door says Plaza Barber Shop. Just inside a tiny cement patio, where geraniums grow along a low wall, is a small chalkboard sign. The sign simply says ‘Scopa. Dinner only. Mon-Sat. 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.’ There’s a number to call for reservations, and you’ll want to make reservations, especially on the weekend, because the small dining room seats only 40.
Inside, Scopa has the ambiance of a neighborhood trattoria you’d find in towns all over Italy. And that’s what chef/owner Ari Rosen intended. “Scopa started as a neighborhood joint. I wanted a restaurant for locals.” Red velvet curtains just inside the door open into a narrow space with dark wood tables, devoid of tablecloths. One wall and the floor are rustic cement. A banquette against the opposite wall is upholstered in dark red. And word of mouth keeps all the seats full.
Back in 1955, there was a barber shop there, and more recently, a Thai restaurant. “The old building drew me to that space,” says Rosen. With help from a couple of friends, he removed layers of pink and purple stucco, and then old redwood siding. “We could feel plaster behind that. It was like looking through layers of time.” When he uncovered the old barber shop sign, he decided to leave it.
He opened Scopa on a shoestring budget; “I was just hoping to not close,” he remembers. The restaurant had two trial days before the official opening; when 40 seats filled up at once, he realized that he needed to take reservations to stagger seating in order to make it work. “The kitchen is small, only two people can work in there.”
Rosen grew up eating and loving the northern Italian food his mother prepared, often from recipes passed down from his grandmother. Then an old family friend, contractor John Chiarito, opened Rosen’s senses to the foods of southern Italy. Chiarito would prepare the traditional Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes each year; he also grew his own wheat, just enough to grind up for the bread he made daily, and he made his own olive oil from the trees he grew in Talmadge outside of Ukiah. “I always loved the quality of that lifestyle,” said Rosen. “He was like my godfather.”
After college, Rosen spent three years at a restaurant in Tuscany, and when he returned to California he worked at Geyserville’s Santi Restaurant, co-owned by Franco Dunn and Tom Oden, cooking alongside a group of chefs he calls a ‘nexus of talent’—including Dino Bugica of Diavolo in Geyserville and Liza Hinman of The Spinster Sisters in Santa Rosa—who all went on to open their own restaurants. Rosen learned the art of handmade sausage from Dunn, and honors Oden, who passed away in 2009, with a dish on Scopa’s menu called Tomasso’s Sugo Calabresi.
An incident with a food distribution company when he was about to open Scopa was pivotal in determining choices he made about how he would run his business. “Fortunately, just two days before opening Scopa, I had a huge falling out with the produce company I’d ordered from,” Rosen recounted. “They refused to deliver my order on schedule because of a ‘new delivery protocol.’” He told them he would be taking his business elsewhere, and “I got on the phone and called all the farmers I’d worked with at Santi. From the beginning we’ve been real farm-to-table—we just didn’t list all the farms on the menu.”
He has developed close relationships with local farmers who will provide him with exactly what he needs. After cooking in Tuscany, “I wanted to bring back Italian varietals of the produce I used there, in the same way an artist uses certain pigments.” He became enamored of puntarelle, a chicory varietal from Catalonia. “It produces a bizarre stalk, the size of a large romaine lettuce head, with asparagus-looking shoots and a Belgian endive flavor. It’s hard to grow, but Yael of Bernier Farms [one of Scopa’s main suppliers] agreed to do it. It’s real contract farming. I’ll order 20 pounds a week of a certain varietal. I’m able to facilitate exactly what I want, and have my menu items based on local farms. Everyone gets the most out of it—me, the farmers, and the customers.”
Rosen considers himself a gatekeeper for tradition. “Using recipes from friends and family members embodies what I love to do. When you land upon a recipe that your grandmother used to make, it touches the senses. This is what roots my heart to the craft. I wanted to focus on nurturing people with good food, making the entire experience seamless and simple, really comfortable.” Scopa’s menu does not offer trendy food innovations—you won’t find foam or molecular gastronomy on your plate. “Our food is recognizable,” says Rosen. “My mantra is ‘simple is better.’”
Rosen was raised on home-grown food. He refers to his mother Karen and father Norm as California hippies; both originally from the East Coast, they were part of the ‘back to the land’ movement, living in a converted trailer in Covelo when Rosen was born in 1977. “They had a huge garden,” he says. “My mother was a stickler for organic and there was a huge emphasis on food. My dad loved to bake—desserts, bread, pizza.”
Later, the family moved to Ukiah, where Rosen and his younger sister grew up. “Mom never cooked professionally, but she could have. Her cooking was at a professional level.” Her methods were strict and precise. Rosen would often help her in the kitchen, channeling his boundless energy into making homemade pasta and cutting up vegetables, and she would supervise and correct his technique, telling him, “Cut the carrots like this.” Her parents came from the Piedmont region of Italy, near the Swiss border. “They eat a lot of polenta there,” says Rosen. “One of my favorite dishes growing up as a kid was my grandmother’s chicken. At Scopa we do Nonna’s Chicken Over Polenta.”
“Nonna Lillian liked dark meat, so we use legs and thighs, dusted in flour and pan fried in olive oil. Then we put in carrots, celery, onions, garlic, rosemary, sage, tomatoes and white wine and bake it in the oven for 3 hours. It has to sit overnight, so the chicken is made a day in advance.” In Northern Italy, the polenta kettle sits inside of the wood stove which gives the polenta a toasted flavor.
To capture that flavor, Nonna’s Chicken is served on a hot cast iron pan; first the polenta, then the sautéed greens and finally the chicken, with the sauce on top. Rosen makes sure to cook certain foods the way he was taught. When he worked under Lorenzo Torini in Florence, the chef would simmer octopus in white wine, tomatoes and aromatics, and he always threw the wine cork into the pot. Rosen wouldn’t do it any other way. Superstition? Maybe, but for him, tradition and superstition go hand in hand. When you’re dealing with traditional methods, believes Rosen, “You don’t want to change it.”
Rosen also loved the Russian and Polish dishes from his father’s side of the family. Nanny Helen made stuffed cabbage, and “the best mandel bread in the world!” Mandel bread is a traditional twice-baked Jewish holiday cookie, made with ground nuts; it’s very similar to biscotti. Rosen’s father, Norm Rosen, who gets up at 6 or 7 in the morning to bake all the seasonal tortes for Scopa, jokingly shared his own mother’s advice about mandel bread: “She said you have to buy the walnuts on sale.”
At Scopa, espresso is served with a tiny biscotti to dunk, made with hazelnuts, almonds, fennel seed and butter. Or is it a tiny mandel bread? Who cares? It’s delicious!
Because homemade pasta is one of his family traditions, most of the time there will be a ricotta ravioli on the menu at Scopa with a simple light tomato sauce, and you’ll usually find antipasti with chickpeas, tuna or marinated anchovies, and housemade pickles of eggplant and zucchini in the fall.
Although it’s a good idea to make reservations to ensure a seat at Scopa, it’s still a neighborhood joint, so you can come in and put your name on the bar list, and you’ll get a call when a seat opens up. Or try Rosen’s other restaurant Campo Fina on Healdsburg Avenue with double the number of seats available.
Games are another family tradition and both restaurants have games as part of their theme. The name Scopa comes from a card game played in Italy (note the Piedmontese scopa game going on in the mural above the dining room), and playing cards are available to use at the restaurant. Campo Fina has a bocce ball court, another tradition for Rosen, who grew up playing the game with his Grandfather Bruno.
The food at Scopa is the real deal, so don’t be surprised if eating there brings up nostalgic memories of your own grandmother’s kitchen. For Ari Rosen, preserving those memories is as much a part of the richness of the experience as the food. SD