As we explore the flavors of California wine country this month, we partnered with with the teams at Healdsburg restaurants Scopa and Campo Fina to bring our Open Kitchen collection to life. Chef Ari Rosen created a menu of rustic Italian dishes featuring locally grown produce and world-renowned wines. Then, the restaurant crew, partners and good friends shared a family-style feast among the natural beauty of the grape vines. Read our interviews with the owners, chefs and partners behind Ned Ludd and try their original recipes here.
At his restaurants Scopa and Campo Fina in Healdsburg, Ari serves up pizza, pasta and other authentic Italian favorites (like his nonna’s braised chicken), all sourced from local farms. Here, he tells us all about his background and his food philosophy — and why falling out with a produce company just days before his restaurant opening was the best thing that could have ever happened.
Tell us about your background and how you got into cooking.
When I was a kid I was a high-energy handful, and luckily I had all-natural hippie parents. They decided to keep me busy in the kitchen. I was always helping one of them prepare meals. Both of my parents love to cook and they really are responsible for giving me my start in the cooking world.
We made homemade pasta weekly, and I remember hanging it all over the house to let it dry — on the backs of chairs, from chin-up bars, just about anywhere.
How would you sum up your food philosophy?
Simple is perfect…perfect is simple. Food is made by people for people. Those are my two mantras. They remind me to strive for perfection in its simplest form while not losing sight of what’s real. I cook for people and I nourish. I make people smile. I stir memories and I build relationships.
I covet grandma recipes and I channel grandma cuisine. When I am developing recipes I ask myself, what would a grandmother do next? They have developed and passed on tried-and-true dishes that anchor family holidays in tradition and create sweet, nostalgic memories. So for me, older recipes are the best. I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel — instead, I put my energy into sourcing great ingredients and letting them speak for themselves. So simple is better, old is tried and true, and great ingredients make great food.
What drew you to Italian food? What do you love about that kind of cooking?
My mother’s family is northern Italian. We grew up eating authentic, blow-your-socks-off Italian food everyday. It’s what I know and what I love. Thankfully, my mother is one of the best cooks I know. She made holidays and tradition the two things I live for… she intertwined food with history, music and a story. That is what nourishes my soul.
Tell us about opening Scopa and Campo Fina. What was your vision for each of the restaurants?
Scopa is a restaurant for the people by the people. A neighborhood joint run by a family with lots of friends coming to dinner every night. It really has been a perpetual dinner party for the last six years.
Campo Fina is the little big sister who came four years later. It was the space that really spoke to us. The interior has gorgeous 100-year-old brick walls, rich in color and texture, while the outside was a secret garden waiting to happen in the center of a block. It was an opportunity to create a piece of Italy with outdoor dining and wood-fired pizzas. Campo was done in a similar style as Scopa. Both restaurants are centered around games. Scopa is a card game and Campo means “court,” so we have a bocce court in the back. Ultimately, we just want to have fun. We really believe in building community and family all around through games, singing, eating, laughing and rejoicing. These are the elements that enrich the community we live in.
Why are Italian flavors so popular in wine country? Is it the ingredients, the flavors, the style of cooking and dining?
I worked in Tuscany for three years, and many times I drove around the countryside noting the similarity in landscape between Sonoma County and the Tuscan hills. I truly believe the flavors of Italian cuisine looked for and found the terroir that they were accustomed to in the old country. This was the way of the old Italian immigrants who chose to settle in the California countryside that reminded them of home. You wouldn’t believe how many Luchese (a town in Tuscany) settled in this valley. We also have a phenomenal growing climate here that lends its hand to great grapes and outstanding produce. The two pair well, especially with friends at one large outside table just around sunset.
How would you describe/characterize the cuisine of wine country?
Wine country cuisine is rich and bountiful. Everything is truly abundant…we have hills filled with wild mushrooms and wild game, 100-year-old fruit orchards, and wild fennel everywhere. We have true salt of the earth farmers and local ranches raising all-natural farm animals that produce some of the best meat in this country. In some ways, my job is too easy. I just stand back and let wine country cuisine do all the talking for itself.
I had a falling out with a very large produce company three days before we opened Scopa. I panicked and then took a few deep breaths and got on the phone with all of our local producers. I said, I’m opening a restaurant and I need you to grow all of our produce. If you grow what I want and how I want, I will buy all of it. And that’s how it began.
The falling out was the greatest culinary gift I have ever received. We now source 90% of all of our produce from three to five farms within five miles of the restaurant. These relationships strengthen community and local commerce. We, in return, receive outstanding produce and get to develop lifetime friendships. Customers, in return, reap the benefits of getting to eat sustainable produce that’s in season. Without these local farms, Scopa would not exist.
What have you learned from those relationships?
That a restaurant is a vehicle to build community in a way that is a win-win for everyone. We are the gatekeepers that protect old tradition and give birth to new ones.
Tell us about the inspiration behind this menu you created for Williams-Sonoma. Why these dishes?
I wanted to create a menu that represented the food we do at Scopa, but the menu needed to reflect how I like to cook at home. I like meals that require a lot of work that you can do ahead of time, but that are relatively easy to execute when your guests arrive. That way, you can spend your time entertaining and enjoying your friends instead of slaving away all night in the kitchen.
As far as the dishes go, I picked all my favorite summertime ingredients and wove them into a cohesive menu. All the dishes were sourced from some of our favorite local farms. The braised pork shoulder actually was sourced entirely from one farm. They are raising my favorite Italian breed of pigs, the Cinta Senese. They also grew the corn and milled it to make their own polenta, as well as grew the broccolini. I wanted to show off the abundance of this area.