Awhile back, I was invited to a private dinner at the Bien Nacido adobe. It was a fragrant, blustery evening, the smell of chaparral and harvest heavy in the air. Soon, the caterers for the evening, Bello Forno, began to serve what would become a tremendous dinner-paired as it was, perfectly, with the Chateauneuf du Pape wines that were being served by the evening’s hosts, Chris and Dayna Hammell. Chris Hammell is the widely esteemed and well-loved vineyard manager of Bien Nacido Vineyards; Dayna, his lovely wife, oversees events at the historic adobe.
We’ve all been to catered events. Oftentimes, the food is not as good as a home-cooked meal or a meal prepared and served in a great restaurant. There are a few great caterers in our area, but I can count them on one hand. Bello Forno, I’m happy to say, has dispelled any prejudices I may have had about mostly mediocre caterers. With the arrival of their new catering service, Bello Forno now joins the ranks of New West Catering, the Chef’s Touch Catering, and Mondial as the best caterers Santa Barbara County has to offer.
Recently, I had the opportunity to engage in a little Q&A with the four owners of Bello Forno-Bob and Kirsten Spallino and Roger and Diana Strasbaugh.
What made four friends want to start a catering company?
Bob Spallino: How about we were tired of Santa Maria-style BBQ? Just kidding.
Kirsten Spallino: The four of us attended church as well as some “food and wine” parties together and struck up a friendship. We noted our common love for great food, wine, and showing other people a terrific time! We probably own 200 cookbooks between us and have been cooking for years. We really enjoyed each other’s company and started auctioning off dinners to benefit local charities. : We had a blast together, and people seemed to love the events : the food. The four of us are “people persons” who enjoy a good time ourselves.
Roger was tasked with spearheading our dough and crust, which was critical to a great pizza pie, and has done a fabulous job. We’ve tried suggesting training someone to handle the oven, but so far, he won’t hear of it. He is practicing his pizza throwing skills! He and Diana know their wines, both Central Coast and Napa Valley, and have spent a lot of time tasting great wines and great foods. Finding good value wines is a specialty of Roger’s.
You offer quite an array of foods. What do you feel you’ll be known for, or what’s your most popular dish right now?
BS: Well, we seem to fall into a couple of categories right now. One is the gourmet multi-course dinners for an intimate dinner party, where we serve everything from a beef tenderloin with a merlot-shallot reduction sauce to our salmon dishes offered either with a vodka cream sauce or a mango cilantro salsa in our wood-fired oven. We also do a very nice marinated jumbo tiger prawn appetizer-also wood-fired-with basil lemon-crme dipping sauce.
The other events really focus on our gourmet pizzas and salads. We have spent a considerable amount of time developing our pizza recipes over the last 20 years.
Roger Strasbaugh: The pizza oven was shipped here from New Orleans. It was quite a production getting it here, since it weighs 4,000 pounds. It sat in our backyard for months before we had it put on the custom trailer. Every week we were cooking different pizza recipes and experimenting; calling the oven manufacturer with questions, calling flour guys for expertise, attending the big Pizza Expo in Vegas.
Diana Strasbaugh: The guys spent time in the kitchen of our friend, chef Ted Rowe, in San Rafael, at his Mulberry Street Pizzeria. He has won prestigious awards for his pizza, including “The Best Pizza in the U.S.A.” as judged by such notables as Mario Batali for his “For the Love of Mushrooms Pizza” recipe, which has been featured on the Food Network several times.
KS: Bello Forno means “beautiful oven.” Our dream is to have a little restaurant with a soul, with our “beautiful oven” being the focus. Everything coming out of it will be beautiful and taste great, just like it does in our catering business. We want to just serve consistently really good, flavorful food and value wines. We want to develop a place where, if someone didn’t feel like cooking that day, they could stop by and get a pizza and salad to have there or take home and still feel like it was “real” quality food and a treat without spending a wad.
You still maintain day jobs? What’s it like balancing that and Bello Forno?
KS: Bob and Roger both have somewhat dry professional careers with a technical versus a creative focus. Bob is in the dental laboratory business and Roger with a pneumatic company. They both feel there is a niche for what we are doing in the corporate world.
DS: I’m part owner of a local salon. I spend my days cutting hair and talking about food and wine! I know what the community wants and is looking for in a special event or evening out. I am also the head varsity coach for Righetti High School’s volleyball teams.
Finally, what wines do you enjoying having with meals?
DS and RS: Actually, that is often the best part of our meal planning. We love taste-testing wines to pair with each course of our dinners or pizzas. We are so fortunate to live in one of the best wine-producing regions there is. From our Bien Nacido chardonnays, Santa Rita Hills pinot to Paso Robles cabs and zins, you just can’t go wrong. We like to travel to the Napa and Healdsburg areas to do “research” and find wines that are not often found in our area. We are trying to research Italian wines, but the four of us have decided that we need to taste-test in the vineyards and wineries of Italy to really experience them.
Contact Bello Forno at 863-6321 or visit belloforno.com.