Christian Caiazzo is the chef and proprietor of Osteria Stellina, a small Italian restaurant in Point Reyes Station, California. Stellina is particularly noteworthy for making all - or at least the vast majority - of its dishes from ingredients that are produced within 50 miles of the restaurant; it is also noteworthy for producing interesting and above all mouthwateringly delicious food. Christian also has a grilled cheese sandwich stand (GBD, aka Golden Brown Delicious) at the Point Reyes Farmer's Market, and is the owner of Toby's Coffebar.
Osteria Stellina was recently named one of the top 100 Bay Area restaurants (although it deserves to be in the top 10, and is one of the two best restaurants in Marin County, as well).
Three Questions: Did you always know that you wanted to own an Italian restaurant, and was the idea of basing an entire menu on locally-sourced ingredients something that had already interested you previously? I understand you worked at Postrio in San Francisco and the Union Square Cafe in New York; was your interest in local ingredients inspired from these well-known restaurants, or was it more a reaction against what you saw at those businesses?
Christian Caiazzo: I have wanted to own a restaurant for maybe 30 years, but what I have now is nothing like what I would think about when younger. From my training, I figured that the way to have/run a restaurant would be much more in the style of the places you mentioned. The reason for the restaurant I have now has much more to do with becoming very political within the food world, recovering (for the most part) from a horrific car accident & often being stuck without decent food options in many American small towns with my family.
I have a theory that tons of food goes to waste each year next to people in fields and forests because most have no idea of what is around them. We serve wild chicories, stinging nettle & miner's lettuce, when in season, to utilize a very small part of what is growing wild around us. This is nothing new or impressive to the cultures that have done this forever, but with the proliferation of national food distributors and the eating public increasingly becoming a mono-culture ... I felt that something had to be done to prove that even in a small town, where most restaurants rely on quesadilla, fish & chips and burgers to fill their clientele, it can be done.
3Q: I was really impressed with the genuine friendliness and familiarity with the menu and ingredients that your staff showed when I ate at Stellina. What have you had to do to get such an excellent front-room and kitchen staff? Have you been able to hire many locals, or have you had to lure specific people in from elsewhere?
CC: Firstly, I am so glad that is the experience you encountered ... it is my dream that Stellina shines as a representative of Pt. Reyes through our food, warmth in service and willingness to share information on the area. Most of our staff are very local and many live only a few blocks away, like I had for some time. (My daughter, whose middle name is Stellina, was born at the end of the restaurant's cross street, 3rd street). I hope to convey trust, caring and the belief in personal responsibility to my staff and they in turn do the same to our guests. It isn't easy, but offering health care benefits, free employee meals & honest management is a start. Many came from Nick's Cove after they had a large decline in business when their first year ended. We are always searching for great help, but have been very lucky so far.
3Q: Of all the various local products you've tasted, tested and experimented with, what are your favorite new discoveries? Are there any ingredients that you would really love to be able to get locally, but just cannot and must do without?
CC: Some recent things we have tasted: fresh handmade organic mozzarella from Kuba (Hemmerling), cheese maker at Pt. Reyes Original Blue (I call it Kubarella); loganberries from a friend of a friend's farm in southern Sonoma county; taking part in/harvesting lambs from farm in Marshall (6 every other week) - including their internal organs - liver, hearts, tongue, kidneys, etc.; agretti from Annabelle of La Tercera farm in Bolinas.
There isn't anything I can think of that we want but don't get, maybe some wines, since many from Italy are so much cheaper, amazingly enough. If something is really cost prohibitive, we try to find another way, like buying whole animals or dividing several ways to recover the costs (using it for our coffeebar - Toby's CoffeeBar) or GBD - our grilled cheese stand at the Point Reyes Farmer's market.