The doors at Scopa, the Italian restaurant on the north side of the Healdsburg plaza, open at 5:30 every afternoon, and despite the early-bird hour, there's usually a gathering of customers waiting to get in.
You might think it's because the room is narrow with limited seating, and quickly fills up, so they're seeking a spot before the dinnertime crowds arrive. But if you know the dishes chef Ari Rosen prepares at Scopa, you know why they're waiting: the food is extraordinarily, surpassingly good.
By the way, if you can't get in, try going around the corner to Campo Fina, the Rosens' other restaurant, with food just as good.
Even when Italian food is indifferently prepared, it can still be pretty tasty. But Rosen does nothing indifferently. His dishes, especially the ones based on southern Italian regional recipes, never become clumsy or over-embellished. If there are tomatoes involved, they're always used in perfect proportion to the overall balance of flavors. He has a light approach to a cuisine that too easily can become heavy.
For instance, think of a head of raw, chewy, bitter radicchio. Rosen turns up the BTUs on the stove and makes a classic Grilled Radicchio ($11.50, 4 stars). The heat softens the raw leaves, rendering them tender. It mellows the bitterness, but not completely. And it brightens the natural sweetness and spiciness of the chicory, a family of edible greens of which radicchio is a member. He dresses the grilled head, which loses its red color in the heat, in a dressing of sweet, rich, balsamic vinegar, tangy and acidic citrus, and pungent olive oil, faceting its flavor profile. To add some fun, he sprinkles the dish with candied walnuts. It's simple, brilliant, and perfectly accomplishes the refinement he's after.
The chef's co-owner and wife, Dawnelise Regnery Rosen, runs the room and knows good service. She's hired a staff that radiates “amicizia,” or friendly good will, as it professionally performs its tasks.