Times-Standard (Eureka, CA)
May 30, 2007
Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard
ARCATA -- When Patricia Cambianica and James Becker opened La Trattoria shortly after their wedding, the restaurant offered a set menu that changed with the seasons. Soon, however, Cambianica noticed a disconnect between the menu and her cooking philosophy of using the best, freshest organic ingredients possible.”I realized Humboldt County doesn't have seasons,” Cambianica said, explaining how the restaurant has since thrown out the set menu in favor of a chalkboard that hangs above the bar and lists the selections of the day, which vary depending on the best offerings of the week from local farmers. ”It just allows more freedom,” Cambianica said. “Our clientele is changing to where they really trust my cooking. Our regulars really like (the ever-changing menu) because it's always something new.” Cambianica, who grew up in a family of restaurant owners, is also embracing the new restaurant concept after years of resisting the family business, scared off by the long hours and the monotony of turning out the same dishes night after night. The new concept also allows her to fully put her philosophy into action, by buying local whenever possible and reducing waste. Becker and Cambianica are proud to point out that their restaurant only has one 32-gallon trash can, which they said is only half-full most weeks. This is partly because they minimize waste by composting everything possible, but it is also because they don't have to stock their fridge for a wide menu. Some customers are disappointed when they find a past favorite no longer on the menu, but the setup seems to keep things interesting for Cambianica, and allows her to showcase the best that Humboldt County has to offer in any given week. She said she is careful to make sure most menus include a red meat (Humboldt grass-fed beef), seafood (locally caught), chicken and several vegetarian options. La Trattoria also uses local lamb, which Becker buys whole and butchers down into various cuts and sausage filling. With only five employees helping out Becker and Cambianica, customers are also treated to a dining experience reminiscent of an old-style family restaurants. Cambianica cooks every meal, generally without the aid of a prep cook, and Becker serves them, most nights with the help of a single waiter. After dinner service, when the last customers have trickled out, Becker said he and Cambianica then sit down with whoever worked that night for the last meal of the evening. Becker and Cambianica also treat their employees to bimonthly massages, an effort to ensure they are relaxed and amicable while serving La Trattoria's customers. One Wednesday a month, La Trattoria's customers are invited to experience a full, five-course set menu for $35. These Wednesday specials usually showcase a region of Italy, but occasionally break loose so Cambianica can dabble in other types of cooking. Next month's five-course meal, set for dinner service at 6 p.m. June 13, will showcase foods of the Mediterranean. Like the regular menu, which has entrees ranging in price from $9 to $18, the La Trattoria wine menu is reasonably priced and showcases both local offerings and those of different regions of Italy. Becker is the wine buff of the couple, and is happy to offer suggestions for customers looking to pair their meal with the perfect beverage. Open for dinner only Thursday through Sunday from 5:30 to 9 p.m., La Trattoria is located at 30 Sunny Brae Center in Arcata. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made by calling the restaurant at 822-6101. The Wednesday five-course meals fill up early, so advance reservations are essential. Cambianica recently sat down with the Times-Standard to talk about her love of cooking and her philosophy that fresh, high quality ingredients make the meal. Times-Standard: Did you cook growing up? Cambianica: I did. My parents had a restaurant, so I cooked a lot with them. And then I was left home alone a lot at a young age, so I did a lot of cooking. I was given a lot of freedom in the kitchen from a really young age. T-S: What made you decide to become a professional chef? Cambianica: I guess I technically would be a cook, not a chef, because I didn't ever do any culinary training and I'm the only one that bosses myself around back there, I don't have a kitchen crew. But, I think it was just my love of food and experimenting with food and the different styles, especially of Italian food because Italy is just so diverse in its regional cooking. So, probably the creativity of it, and then I'm kind of stubborn, so it's nice to be able to do my own thing. T-S: Where else have you worked? Cambianica: I worked for quite a few years with Los Bagels and did a lot of their prep cooking. They were actually a really great company to work for, and I think they gave me a lot of my more grounded business ideas. My parents were kind of old school and didn't have as much of the business aspect. So, I think they gave me a lot more business training. T-S: What do you like about cooking in a small county like Humboldt? Cambianica: Probably the farmers. Definitely. A lot of the farmers we've just become really good friends with ... I think the farmers and ranchers in the area mainly. Then, I just really like the pace of Humboldt County. It's a different pace. It's not as fast. It's more neighborly, more community-oriented. I really like that. T-S: What is your favorite food to cook with? Cambianica: Oh, probably anything in season. Just that philosophy, “Eat it if it's in season and don't eat it if it's out of season.” T-S: When at home, what do you like to eat? Cambianica: We usually will do some Asian cooking. (James is) a really good barbecuer, so we'll do local fish a lot. Lots of vegetables. I really like to cook Indian and any type of Asian, like Vietnamese or Thai. Usually, we seem to go back to Italian, just because we always have garlic and pasta in the cupboard, so we'll make simple pasta. T-S: Which chef made the greatest impact on your life? Cambianica: I would say, overall philosophy, I really like Marcella Hazan. She's kind of the queen of Italian cooking. She's extremely simple, very, very traditional. T-S: What are your favorite signature dishes at La Trattoria? Cambianica: I think any of my handmade pastas are probably my signature dish. They take the most labor. A lot of people gravitate to the gnocchi, the lasagna and the ravioli. T-S: What is your passion outside of work? Cambianica: I like to garden. I've been getting more into it. It's taken a while to get back into it with the restaurant. Hiking and backpacking is probably right up there, too, in this area. Eating and travel are definitely in there, too. Cambianica offers the following recipe for a Ling Cod Pasta Sauce. The sauce also can be made with flounder, halibut, sole or snapper. For simplicity, Cambianica uses dried linguine in the recipe but, for those looking to use homemade pasta, she suggests a delicate wide noodle. At La Trattoria, the sauce is served over a housemade ricotta and spinach ravioli. Ling Cod Pasta Sauce -- 1/4 cup olive oil -- 1 large carrot, finely chopped -- 2 celery stalks, finely chopped -- 1 small red or yellow onion, finely chopped -- 3 cloves garlic, minced -- 1 cup dry white wine -- 1 cup pureed or ground tomatoes (not paste) -- 10 basil leaves, coarsely chopped -- 20 parsley leaves, finely chopped -- 1 pound ling cod -- Salt and pepper to taste -- 1 pound dried linguine noodles Sauté the carrot, celery and onion with the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the onions become golden, add the garlic and sauté for just a minute. Add the wine and continue to cook down until the wine is reduced to half its volume. Add the tomato, basil and parsley and lower the heat down to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes. Add the fish, salt and pepper and simmer for another 15 minutes covered with a lid. In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt and then the linguine. Cook as suggested on the box. Drain pasta and add it to the sauce. Gently toss together and serve. Serves 4 to 6.