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Roma by the sea

Life is a dinner party for two innkeepers who turned a remote Mendocino inn into a breathtaking setting for acclaimed Italian food.

February 18, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

When Luciano and Pauline Zamboni retired to their 100-year-old Victorian on a bluff overlooking an isolated stretch of the Mendocino coast, they probably never dreamed their lives would be taken over by dinner parties.

In the first place, it's almost an hour's drive to the nearest grocery store. A decent provisioning, the kind they took for granted when they lived in Southern California, requires an overnight trip to the Bay Area. Then there's the matter of dinner guests -- the nearest town is Manchester, population 223, and it's a couple of miles away. The next closest is Elk, population 165.

But when Luciano Zamboni is in the kitchen, all obstacles are minor.

No ingredients? Plant vegetable gardens and raise poultry, sheep and goats. Travel if you need to. The only place he even considers buying veal is his old Gelson's in Century City, so he brings some back once a month or so.

No guests? Convert your home into an inn and supply your own.

And so 10 years after "retiring" to this isolated stretch of coastline -- he was a fertility specialist and is a professor emeritus on the medical faculty at UCLA, she was an urban planner and the school's director of special projects -- the Zambonis find themselves serving breakfast and dinner for up to 16 guests four days a week. They are booked solid several months in advance.

The response has been so enthusiastic that in the 2003 Zagat survey, their Inn at Victorian Gardens had the highest rating of any restaurant in the Bay Area (with an asterisk acknowledging that it had drawn far fewer respondents than, say, Chez Panisse Cafe). The restaurant rated 29 for food and a perfect 30 points on service (a real credit to Pauline, who is the only waitress).

In 2004 it fell slightly, to 27 for food, the same as Chez Panisse and just behind Gary Danko, the French Laundry, Masa's and La Toque. Which is not to say that Victorian Gardens could ever be confused with any of those restaurants.

In fact, the very suggestion would be enough to send Luciano sputtering with indignation. His culinary sensibilities are, shall we say, conservative. He constantly threatens to write an "anti-cookbook" (the working title is "Would You Please Spare Us Another Cookbook"), the gist of which, apparently, would be how much he hates anything having to do with restaurant cooking as it is currently practiced in this country.

Rather than a state-of-the-art culinary adventure complete with foams, foie gras torchons and tastings of exotic salts, dinner at the Zambonis' is much more like a meal at the country home of a wealthy Roman, albeit one who lives in a perfectly restored Victorian farmhouse overlooking one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of the Pacific Coast.

An easy mix of ancient, modern

You approach the house on a dirt road that winds up the bluff from Highway 1. Look closely and you'll spot the natural spring where calla lilies bloom and where Pauline goes to pick wild watercress for salads (other times she'll use miner's lettuce from the meadows).

The house itself is a white clapboard. Ring the bell and, when you enter the main hallway, the first impression is that everything is perfectly in its place without seeming to be self-consciously arranged. Just as in Italy, ancient and modern are comfortably juxtaposed. A gorgeous Japanese wedding kimono hangs in one hallway; in the sitting room there is a curio cabinet filled with Etruscan artifacts unearthed during construction projects in Rome that Luciano's father supervised.

If you're staying the night, go upstairs to the bedrooms, all of which are spacious and appointed with Italian linens. Particularly notice the floors, which are of old fir. When Pauline couldn't find boards to match the ones that needed to be replaced, she searched out a woodworker in Humboldt County who milled new ones using 100-year-old tools to get a perfect match.

Downstairs, wander into the massive kitchen to see how Luciano is faring with dinner preparations. The Zamboni kitchen is a marvel, built around a 58-inch Wolf range. On either side, Luciano has organized a series of perfectly graduated cast-iron frying pans and a couple of dozen copper saucepans.

There's an old fireplace along one wall, and above the long black granite work counter hangs a series of five Andy Warhol Campbell's soup can lithographs that Luciano bought in the '60s.

If you're lucky, he may be pulling a little pizza bianca out of the oven -- nothing more than pizza dough spread into a sheet pan and brushed with fragrant olive oil both before and after baking. It is warm and sharp with a sprinkling of sea salt.

There will probably be some wine as well, nothing fancy, maybe a Rosso Conero or a light white such as Pinot Grigio. Being Roman, he seems to prefer wines that are friendly rather than intellectual. With main courses, he likes a nice Lambrusco.

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