Roberta’s alum Brendan Smith and Rachel Greenspan run wood-fired hot spot Bettina in the Montecito Country Mart.
It was 2013, and Smith was running the bread program at Roberta’s in Brooklyn. He needed some cream from Battenkill Valley Creamery to make butter. So he called Greenspan, who sold specialty ingredients to restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Per Se.
“I thought she sounded cute over the phone,” Smith says.
They happened to meet one day at Roberta’s; she was getting a beer at noon after a meeting, and he was finishing his overnight shift. They started dating soon after and realized how burnt out on living and working in New York they both were. Smith was riding his bike from East Williamsburg to Bushwick late at night and then baking from midnight to noon “outside in a shipping container in the garden during the winter.” Greenspan, who lived in Prospect Heights, was running around to restaurants during the day. Spending time together was a challenge.
Now they’re together all the time, and Santa Barbara is lucky they decided to start a life and business together. The pizza at Bettina in the Montecito Country Mart is a delightful hybrid of Neapolitan-style and East Coast. Smith is a baker who is happy to tell you that everything at Bettina is sourdough. He can get deep on what kind of flour he uses, what kind of flour he avoids, how he doesn’t want to make knife-and-fork pizza, how he gets local pork shoulder that he grinds for sausage, and how he burns red oak in the same kind of Pavesi oven from Modena that Roberta’s uses. He doesn’t like the term neo-Neopolitan but acknowledges that what he’s doing, including the temperature and time involved in wood-firing his pizzas, “isn’t strict Neapolitan.”
He understands that nothing he says could better explain Bettina’s point of view than the finished product. The pizza has a charred, puffy crust. Each slice is pleasantly chewy, and you can hold it and fold it without losing the toppings. There’s a marvelous pepperoni pizza with chile oil, Hollister Ranch honey, and the same pepperoni served at New York mainstay Prince Street Pizza. And, as you might expect of a Santa Barbara establishment, the restaurant is driven by local farmers markets and seasonal cooking. You'll find a range of inspired, produce-forward pizzas, including one with sunchoke, aged cheddar, escarole, torpedo onion, silk chile, and sesame. We recommend getting some ranch dressing as a dip for your crust. And, if you order the excellent winter-squash arancini and you like spicy food, you’ll want to save the ramekin of crushed Calabrian chiles, which is also great for crust-dipping.
Smith and Greenspan, who moved to California when Smith was hired to run New Vineland Bread in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, first started serving pizza in Santa Barbara out of their Autostrada mobile wood-fired oven in 2014. Even after opening their busy restaurant, they still regularly cater weddings, winery events, and other parties.
The couple, who got married in 2016, never did any advertising for Autostrada. But once wedding planners realized there was an excellent pizza-catering option in Santa Barbara, it become a hot commodity.
“We had two events last week,” Greenspan says. “We struggle a little bit with saying no.”
Bettina opened on October 29, and it’s been packed night after night. The restaurant is open until 10 p.m. every night, which is late for Santa Barbara, and Smith and Greenspan encourage people to come in for both aperitivo hour and digestifs.
“I think we’re super inspired by Italian culture and that lifestyle of just drinking and enjoying life and eating delicious food,” Greenspan says.
So Bettina is a place where you can start your visit with a Venetian spritz or a white negroni, and then sample different vermouths and amaros after dinner. The restaurant is also open for lunch on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and there are plans to start serving lunch on other days.
“The first three months have been very busy,” Smith says. “I thought we would have that January slowdown. It hasn’t happened yet. I’m wondering what summer is going to be like now. Like, we need another pizza oven, really.”
Bettina is part of two trends that are remaking the dining scene around Santa Barbara. For starters, there’s serious culinary talent who worked at big-city hot spots before opening Santa Barbara restaurants.
Bibi Ji, downtown Santa Barbara’s modern Indian destination, is the sister restaurant of New York’s Babu Ji. Chef Jessi Singh opened Bibi Ji, which has “unauthentic curries” alongside dishes like biryani with Santa Barbara uni, last February with high-profile wine expert Rajat Parr.
Downtown’s Café Ana, where Smith and Greenspan got coffees before our meeting at Bettina, opened in December. Chef Ryan Whyte-Buck, who grew up in Ojai, California, previously cooked at Brooklyn’s Golda and was part of the opening team at Portland’s Ox. He’s serving three meals a day at Café Ana and offering menu items like house-made yogurt, a smoked tuna melt, assorted toasts, a golden beet salad, and caviar with Kettle chips.
Over in the Funk Zone, a district known for its boutique wine-tasting rooms and eclectic shops, Santa Barbara-born chef Daniel Palaima has opened Tyger Tyger, a casual spot in a cozy Acme Hospitality complex that serves fierce and funky dishes inspired by Southeast Asia and beyond. Tyger Tyger’s pork khao soi is a deeply satisfying curry soup with egg noodles, fermented mustard greens, and a generous amount of chile oil. Palaima worked in Chicago at Grant Achatz’s Next, He also cooked in Chicago at Stephanie Izard’s Duck Duck Goat, where he learned a lot about modern Asian flavors. He says one of his mentors, whom he worked for at Martis Camp in the Lake Tahoe area, is Shaun King, who now runs the kitchen at Momofuku in Las Vegas. It makes sense that Palaima likes food that is packed with acid and heat. The complex also includes Dart Coffee Co. and soft-serve counter Monkeyshine, where you can do delicious things like top black sesame ice cream with Cap’n Crunch or Pocky sticks.
Meanwhile, L.A. chefs Phillip Frankland Lee and Margarita Kallas-Lee have recently opened restaurants including The Monarch and The Silver Bough at the Montecito Inn. The couple have become regulars at Bettina, which is within walking distance of the Montecito Inn. It turns out that young culinary power couples in this part of California wine country is also a trend. Café Ana is owned by Julian and Kathleen Guzman Sanders, who are friends with Smith and Greenspan. Julian’s credits include a stint at San Francisco’s Restaurant Gary Danko, and Katherine worked for a big hospitality-PR firm.
Smith and Greenspan are also tight with Daisy and Greg Ryan, the Per Se alums who opened Bell’s about an hour away in Los Alamos last March. One reason restaurants like Bettina and Bell’s exist is that their owners wanted to create the kind of place they wanted to visit.
“There just aren’t a lot of restaurants like ours around here,“ Greenspan says. “We were finding that there weren’t places we were super psyched to go to.”
Smith and Greenspan would love to dine at Bell’s frequently if they could, but Bettina is open seven days a week, so they don’t have much downtime. They do sometimes take Wednesday day trips to eat around and give themselves a break, but Bell’s isn’t open on Wednesday.
Smith and Greenspan still hang out with the Ryans, even though they’re all back at a point in their lives where the restaurant industry limits their social lives. But it’s different than how it was in New York. They’re no longer cramped and cold. They’re owners. They’re surrounded by nature and have access to better ingredients. One reason Smith left Brooklyn to work at a little California bakery is because New Vineland was growing and milling its own wheat.
“I flew out for a weekend,” Smith says. “I had never been to the Central Coast before. It was pretty amazing. It’s absolutely gorgeous out here.”
Now that Smith and Greenspan are on the same schedule, they can make the most of their time off and have adventures unlike anything in New York.
“We can go to the beach and not be in the Rockaways,” Greenspan says.
And while a lot of New Yorkers have relocated to L.A., Smith and Greenspan are happy they landed where they are.
“L.A. traffic gives us a lot of anxiety,” Greenspan says. “It brings out everything we left New York for. When I get into a car in L.A., I become that aggressive person I was in New York.”
Sometimes, the couple’s New York instincts do emerge in Santa Barbara when they see people improperly folding pizza and wondering why the toppings are sliding off. Smith and Greenspan laugh when they discuss how there are still a lot of knives and forks used to eat pizza at Bettina.
None of this is actually a problem, of course. The couple behind Bettina, ultimately, are exuberant about being part of a hospitality scene that’s undergoing a major makeover. The Rosewood Miramar Beach luxury hotel, for example, opens on February 11 in Montecito, and it’s already fully booked for the month.
“We just got a tour of Miramar,” Smith says. “It’s pretty insane.”
“It’s very epic,” Greenspan adds. “We feel really lucky to be here when all of this is happening.”