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Roman Holiday

An inn with a restaurant and a farm re-creates Italy--in Mendocino.

Touring his garden, Luciano Zamboni bent down to gather up the stalks of a bushy cardoon. We had examined a hedge of silvery artichoke plants, very similar in appearance to the cardoon but with spiky purple buds. And we'd already surveyed the herb gardens that hug the house and the boxed-in beds of red and white chard, puntarella chicory, two kinds of arugula, three kinds of radicchio, squashes with orange blossoms, fava beans, peas and potatoes.

We were discussing the celery-like cardoon. "This plant is ready to be tied," Zamboni told me, "so the inner stalks will blanch. In the winter, I'll make a gratin or deep-fry them or sauté them with onions and tomatoes. So delicious."

So Italian, I thought.

The Zamboni compound, a manicured, almost self-sustaining farm with vegetable beds, fruit trees, bird coops, animal pens and free-ranging herds, is not, as one would expect, in the Roman countryside but is a 3 1/2-hour drive north of San Francisco on the Mendocino coast via some of the most beautiful roads in the world. In this isolated spot, Pauline and Luciano Zamboni operate the Victorian Gardens, a four-room inn with a 16-seat dining room surrounded by 92 acres of grazing land.

Interrupting our conversation, two asses brayed with astounding volume, while sheep grazed nearby. Roosters and guinea fowl shrieked; an undertone of cooing emanated from a dovecote. We admired a baby lamb, and the talk turned to coratella--a sauté of lungs, spleen, heart and liver in olive oil with onions and sliced Roman artichokes. "You wouldn't believe how good it is," Zamboni said. I would, and told him I'd drive right up the next time he killed a lamb.

I'd go to Victorian Gardens not only for this rarely prepared Roman delicacy but also to walk on the deserted miles-long beach and to be surrounded by the Zamboni sensibility, which plays off the stunning natural setting. Every window in the inn frames a tableau: a sharp horizontal of silvery ocean topped by a billow of fog with a cypress on one side; a glimpse of the veranda with a bent-golden-willow chair, a riot of purple, orange and white in a flower bed and a donkey couple nibbling.

Luciano Zamboni, born in Rome, is a doctor who rose to become chairman of the Department of Pathology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. Like every Roman I know, he's crazy about cooking. His wife, Pauline, a former urban planner, was the director of capital projects at UCLA. They entertained often at their home in Los Angeles and had a wood-burning oven built in their backyard. He dreamed of opening a private restaurant in their house.

Ten years ago, the Zambonis bought Victorian Gardens, and five years later, after an inspired restoration, they opened for business without advertising, depending on word of mouth. Every evening, at 7:30 sharp, guests assemble for an aperitivo and then dinner at a table set with Zamboni family linen, delicately etched wineglasses and heirloom silverware. The meal unfolds traditionally--antipasto, first course, meat or fish with three contorni (vegetable side dishes), salad from the garden, dessert always made by Pauline, and coffee, tea and spirits. Many glasses of wine are poured. Three hours later, those spending the night climb the stairs and crawl between thick, old-fashioned sheets under hand-crocheted bedspreads.

In the morning, around the kitchen table over good coffee, homemade breads and preserves and just gathered eggs, Luciano brings out his classic Italian cookbooks to show me one with 26 pages on fritto misto, a mix of vegetables, meats, even fruits, all deep-fried in olive oil. Each region of Italy prepares it differently. The next edition may just have to include Zamboni's Mendocino fritto made with backyard cardoon. (14409 South Highway 1, Manchester, Calif.; 707-882-3606. Rooms: $135 to $185 with breakfast. Dinner: Thursday through Sunday, $125 for two)

Patricia Unterman is a restaurant critic and the author of Patricia Unterman's Food Lover's Guide to San Francisco (Chronicle).

Published October 2000
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