On closing Osteria Stellina

08/05/2020

No burying the lead here. Osteria Stellina, my baby, a restaurant concept built on food politics, organics, community, regional Italian cooking, love and idiocy, and a culmination of a life in the kitchen—from dishwashing and bussing in my first restaurant job at 14, to cooking at Postrio, Union Square Café, Globe, Fifth Floor, Lascaux, and 25 other restaurants on two coasts—is closing at the end of August.

It’s the smart move, I think, which is not a move I’ve made often since we opened in November 2008, at the start of the worst economic depression since the 1920s. I’ve consistently overspent on food, paying the same prices as restaurants that charge way more than we. I’ve provided health insurance to staff from the beginning, I’ve kept employees on during our winter slow season and have made myriad other crucial restaurant mistakes over our nearly 12 years of existence. Hell, we didn’t even have a sign in front or a reservation system when we opened. We never took full advantage of social media and digital media to attract a broader geographical base of customers. But I have zero regrets. As cruel as it is that Stellina will disappear, that we will retain absolutely nothing tangible to take away from this, that we will exist only in memory, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

I moved to Point Reyes Station in 2001 after living in cities—San Francisco, Boston and New York—for the previous 14 years. The adjustment was severe, but my roots growing up and working near and on farms in the tobacco valley of Connecticut enabled me to acclimate to this semi-remote agriculture-based town. I had just survived a horrific auto accident that resulted in eight days of total body paralysis and eventually a major spinal injury. Still in recovery, I moved into a rental at the end of Third Street (where my daughter was born two years later), took a job at the Cowgirl Creamery, and put being a chef on hold. Looking back, I have either lived or worked on the same two-block stretch of downtown Point Reyes Station for nearly 20 years. It’s here I became a husband, a father and a restaurant owner for the first time. 

After starting a family, undergoing a long rehabilitation process, and completing a three-year stint with Cowgirl, I reached my watershed moment, as all of us entrepreneurs and control freaks do, where I had to create my own business and bring forth my own concepts. First, I opened my beloved Toby’s Coffee Bar at the feed barn. Its overnight success taught me much about county regulations, cash flow, management and planning. A year and a half later I received a phone call from the previous owner of the Stellina space who was looking to sell, and beg, borrow, and buy it I did. 

I had walked by this location daily, dreaming one day of turning it into my vision. A vision born of an epiphany I’d had traveling through Washington State when, after driving past dozens of blueberry farms, we’d stopped into a local restaurant for a meal and, of course, to see what they’d made from the farm next door. They had no blueberries from their neighbors on their menu, none from the next county, or the next after that. They were a victim, as many small towns across this country are, of the crippling conglomerates that control much of our rural menus and make it onerous and cost ineffective to serve local food. 

What if, I thought, one day, when we are back in Point Reyes Station, I could attempt to change all that by utilizing our incredible regional food system and try to do what I’d seen in small towns in Italy? Serve local, buy local, and create a local mini-economy where I would purchase from farmers, oyster growers, cheese makers, lambers, grass-fed beefers, olive oilers who would then come eat at my restaurant with those profits and we’d showcase their wares to visitors from around the world. What if?

Despite all our shortcomings, we did exactly that. We have had more than one day  where we were serving Bill’s beef, Sue’s cheese, Gordon’s mead, Warren and Annabelle’s veggies, Julie’s goat, Sean’s wine, Scott & Patty’s mussels, Marcia’s lamb, the Dierks’ salad, Peter’s kale, Albert’s cream, Soyoung’s cheese, Celine’s bread and Andrew’s buffalo gelato while one or three of them were eating in the dining room. 

I know it’s precious and didactic to preach the merits of our local farms on our menu but I thought it was the right thing to do. I envisioned a true osteria, a restaurant designation I came upon while researching details of what my concept might be. I was up late reading a book by Joyce Goldstein, an early S.F. chef hero of mine, in which she defined an osteria as “a place in the country, with or without an inn, that serves local food and wine, to the community and visitors alike.” Eureka! I thought, that’s what we could be.

This goal we achieved, but the responsibility to my staff took on a greater role than I had ever imagined and the difficulty of keeping this machine rolling over the years increased at every turn. I am heartbroken to think that I have let them down. That even one employee will be left without work for any period of time haunts me. At some point you feel as though you are working for your staff, not the other way around. As a small business owner you manage their health care, their vacations, the money that supports them and their families, unemployment when Covid forces you to lay them off, and their past bills if they unfortunately come against a tax lien. Beyond any cliché, we are a family. Like any family, we sometimes hate each other but find peace for the greater good more often than not. We witness each other’s children grow, discuss our aches and pains, share our worries for the future and most of all, support each other. Many have been with the restaurant from the beginning—Marcos, Margarita, David, Anna—we wouldn’t have thrived without them. To them, and to all our employees, past and present, I am so very sorry we have to close.

I am also sorry to my customers, our fringe family who visited often or only once. Who, for the most part, got what we were trying to do. They participated in this dream of ours and our local economy and supported our farms that struggle to make it right along with the restaurants. They paid for the clothes of our servers’ children, our line cooks’ spouses’ health care, school for the young bussers and runners, and food for our dishwashers, managers, and prep cooks. 

Great reviews and mentions put us on the map and many customers who discovered us through this press returned through the years. We were visited by a few of our musical heroes, Robert Plant and Tom Waits, and Santana and his wife were regulars for years. Our food idols also came and offered praise that this little osteria would hold such high standards of ingredients. The writers and actors and personal heroes all made our days, but our local clientele made our years. They are the ones who I feel I am letting down the most. When we first opened, two fantastic women from Inverness ate at Stellina so often they used to joke about who was winning for most meals. Kay would say I made her gain too much weight while Carla pushed those worries aside and took first place by coming maybe 40 times in our first three months. Carla passed away a few years ago. Thank you, Carla, thanks, Kay.

We’ve had several customers pass away over the years, and a few staff. Nothing holds more true than the old “death and taxes” adage, and it is now Stellina’s turn to die. To be sure, many people are suffering worse than us due to this pandemic, and the loss of life is staggering in its scope and viciousness. We are, after all, just a restaurant, and are ever mindful of just how lucky we are in all the ways that count the most. I hope you all hold us in a positive light in your memories. We really did try our best. Even when I had my second spinal surgery in year five, or when our septic system failed in year two and we almost went under due to the repair costs. Even when in year one my father died, my mother almost died, I got divorced, and I had to abandon my staff for months to deal with the grief. We survived longer and better than the vast majority of restaurants do, if you believe the statistics, and mostly it was to fight another day, to honor the contract I made with myself to show these magnificent farmers in a magical light; to entertain; to provide pleasure and enjoyment to every person who walked through our door; to find joy and be open to love and new beginnings. 

At Stellina, I met my genius wife Katrina, a New Yorker living in Marshall while making a book, who had been eating my food for months before I met her. She adores this place, too. When the closures happened in March, Katrina dropped everything and has worked tirelessly since then to help keep Stellina alive. Our 16-year-old daughter joined us, answering phones, bussing tables, and making our celebrated tiramisù these past few months, as did our 13-year-old son, who has given up summer afternoons to stoically wash dishes. It has been an incredibly special and bonding experience, all of us banding together to keep the lights on, and I am forever grateful to Stellina for this final, parting gift.

As word of our closing has spread through the community, I have been deeply touched by the outpouring of love, gratitude and condolences. There will never be a restaurant more personal to me than Osteria Stellina. There was always an opportunity for one more joyful conversation, one more great dish to share, one more local to employ, and one more customer to hopefully enthrall before it was over. Until now. Thank you all for coming and supporting us over these nearly 12 years; you will be sorely missed. Please continue to visit us at Toby’s Coffee Bar, the farmers’ market, and at future projects yet to come.