Food & Travel

Where the chicken and the egg came first

Start-ups and scrumptious food have Calif. town booming — again

Besides chicken and eggs, Petaluma, Calif., has plenty of food options, including bread (pictured) from Della Fattoria. Besides chicken and eggs, Petaluma, Calif., has plenty of food options, including bread (pictured) from Della Fattoria.
By Kathleen Thompson Hill
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2010

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PETALUMA, Calif. — This Sonoma County town has done a lot right. In its heyday, it was known for its grain mills, dairies, racehorse stables, potato farms, and fruit orchards. That commercial activity and the population both waned in the late 1800s. Then the residents decided to raise chickens.

One hour north of San Francisco, Petaluma became a poultry capital. The other industry is eggs. When the town was faltering, its leaders tried to think of a crop that would keep people in the region. Hardly anyone thought of chickens because they had all the poultry and eggs they needed. You might say that the idea was too obvious to take seriously.

A Canadian named Lyman Byce showed up in 1878 and decided that San Francisco restaurants needed more chickens and eggs than they could find. Some were “importing’’ them from the East Coast in un-iced barrels.

Byce’s father raised chickens using cow manure to heat the barn. Using that primitive system, Byce and a dentist named Isaac Dias invented the first poultry incubator. Another Petaluman, Christopher Nissan, bought some of Byce’s redwood boxes, filled them with eggs laid by his hens, and started the first commercial hatchery at Two Rock, west of Petaluma. The Petaluma River running through town became the shipping route.

More recently Petaluma residents, including former mayor and current congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, helped develop Petaluma Valley as “Telecom Valley’’ to replace some chicken and egg businesses. Grain mills are now condominiums and start-up companies. The mills also house retail space for Cowgirl Creamery, and several cafes and brewing companies. Petaluma has tastefully restored Queen Anne, Victorian, neoclassical, Gothic Revival, and Italianate buildings.

Annual events include Butter & Egg Days, complete with a Butter & Egg Queen, and the Salute to “American Graffiti,’’ a film shot in town (others were “Peggy Sue Got Married,’’ “Inventing the Abbotts,’’ “Pleasantville,’’ and “Mumford’’).

Cowgirl Creamery, which began in Point Reyes Station and has stores in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., now offers tours at its Petaluma creamery, which include a cheesemaking demonstration, tasting, and a sampler bag of its North Coast cheeses.

Della Fattoria bakery makes the breads served at many San Francisco Bay Area restaurants, including ciabatta, Kalamata olive, and polenta. At breakfast in its downtown cafe, order poached eggs on toast, Straus organic vanilla yogurt, and pain au chocolate. Lunch salads include panzanella and Nicoise. Or try Rancho Gordo beans on toast, or a sandwich of egg, tapenade, and smoked salmon.

For reasonable prix fixe lunches, head to Risibisi for minestrone or salad and fresh local fish, organic chicken, or risotto or pasta. Or order Bay shrimp salad, or one of 11 pastas. Dinner may include Petaluma duck breast, beer stewed chicken, or Sonoma rack of lamb.

Another local favorite in the same block is Cucina Paradiso, with a wide range of Italian specialties from grilled calamari and carpaccio antipasti to veal-filled tortellini and Gorgonzola gnocchi. You can dine on wood-fired fish such as stuffed rainbow trout at Central Market, or ricotta-stuffed chicken breast, quail with chorizo, or spicy lamb cabbage rolls.

Sugo Trattoria prepares a luscious butternut squash risotto, angel hair pasta, meatballs, and chicken artichoke piccata.

For well-priced Mexican specialties, Taqueria Mi Pueblo El Centro is a downtown branch of a family of Mexican restaurants serving tacos filled with fish, tongue, beef cheeks, chicken, and beef; loads of shrimp and crab dishes; and soups such as menudo and siete mares (seven seas).

Old Petaluma ranchers and their families take the large tables at Volpi’s Ristorante & Bar and order family style. Calamari with polenta and vegetables is outstanding. True fans go for tripe and polenta. The Old World Bar in the back still sports its original speakeasy escape door from Prohibition.

As Volpi’s longtime servers say of Petaluma, “We’re still a chicken town.’’

Central Market, 42 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma, Calif., 707-778-9900,

Cowgirl Creamery, 419 1st St., 866-433-7834,

Cucina Paradiso, 114 Petaluma Blvd. North, 707-782-1130,

Della Fattoria, 141 Petaluma Blvd. North, 707-763-0161,

Risibisi, 154 Petaluma Blvd. North, 707-766-7600,

Sugo Trattoria, 5 Petaluma Blvd., 707-782-9298,

Taqueria Mi Pueblo El Centro, 108 Kentucky St., 707-769-9066.

Volpi’s Ristorante & Bar, 124 Washington St., 707-765-0695.