The sign on the archway in the middle of Restaurante La Strada reads: "A tavola non si inveccia mai": Sit at this table and you won't grow old.

That's the philosophy of the three new owners of La Strada, which opened last month on the Napa-Vallejo Highway in American Canyon.

During three months of renovations, Timothy Keefe, Martino Gonzalez and Adrino Munoz set out to create a similar classic Italian restaurant in the old building, known for years as Tonelli's Steak House. They replaced the kitchen, the floors, covered the old cinder-block walls with muted gold stucco, added murals, columns and chandeliers with soft amber lighting. The menu is now northern Italian specialties.

"It's a 100 percent transformation," said Keefe — except the three restaurateurs, who own a thriving eatery in San Pablo, intend to continue the Tonelli tradition of offering locals an inviting, family-friendly place to dine. "We are comfortable, but elegant," Keefe said. "You can come here in a polo shirt, or come in a tux and still feel at home, have a good meal — and come back."

It was a serendipitous connection that led the three to the project, Keefe explained. As a young man, Keefe worked for a Greek restaurateur, Bill Pappas, who owned a restaurant in San Pablo. Keefe, Gonzalez and Munoz later bought the site and created the successful La Strada. Pappas, in turn, told them that the Greek owners of Tonelli's in Napa County were thinking of selling. The three decided to bring what has been a winning combination to create a new restaurant in American Canyon for patrons from points north and south in Napa County

"The locals are the most important," Keefe noted, saying the south valley was ready for a new dining option, with "quality dining at reasonable prices."

Gonzalez is continuing to work as the floor manager at their San Pablo restaurant, while Keefe is managing the new restaurant. Munoz is the chef at the American Canyon La Strada, where he has created a classic Italian menu. What all three share is a boundless enthusiasm for the business.

"You have to love it," said Gonzalez, who grew up in San Francisco's North Beach and has been working in restaurants since he was 14. "I've tried other things," he said. "I worked as a carpenter — it had a good salary, great benefits, but I always thought, I have to get back to restaurants."

"It's great work — if you enjoy it," observed Keefe. "If you like people, it becomes a service. And a family." His two sons have come to work in the new La Strada, he noted. "You have to see them sometime," he quipped, noting that one of the advantages of the restaurant business is that "your whole family gets involved."

Munoz, who worked in San Francisco restaurants and at the San Pablo La Strada before coming to run the kitchen of the new American Canyon site, said he favors the classic Italian dishes, many of which, like osso bucco and saltimbocca, have all but disappeared from many restaurant menus.

"It's what life is all about, isn't it?" Gonzalez asked with a laugh. "To eat good food and drink good wine — so far, we enjoy what we do."

The menu

Appetizers on the La Strada menu range from $4.95 for the soup of the day to $10.95 for cozze o vongole in blanca, steamed mussels or clams in white wine and garlic. Salads, mozzarella caprese (tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and basil with olive oil, 7.95), carpaccio (thinly sliced cured beef with capers and olive oil, $8.95), calamari fritti (seasoned, pan-fried squid, $7.95) and bruschetta (toasted bread topped with fresh tomatoes, roasted garlic and basil, $4.95) are also offered.

Primi piatti, served with soup or salad, include pasta dishes ranging from cannelloni ripieni di vitello (cannelloni stuffed with veal, ricotta cheese and spinach, $12.95), ravioli de Milano ($11.95), capellini al pomodoro naturale (angel hair pasta with fresh tomato and garlic, $9.95), risotto al fungi (Italian rice with porcini mushrooms, $12.95). Gnocchi (potato dumplings) are prepared with fresh basil and tomato, pesto or ragu (meat) sauce for $10.95. Fettucini is served in a variety of ways including Alfredo ($9.95), al pesto ($10.95), con salcissie (with sausage, $10.95), fettucine alla strada (with mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes in a light cream sauce, $11.95) and fettucini al carciofi (with artichoke hearts, fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil, $11.95).

Linguine is prepared vongole (with fresh clams and garlic in a light tomato sauce, $13.95), con gamberetti (with marinated prawns, $13.95) and con cozze (with fresh mussels in a spicy marinara sauce, $11.95).

For main courses, veal scaloppini prepared with marsala ($17.95), la strada (veal with eggplant and mozzarella in a light tomato sauce, $17.95), carciofi (with artichokes, mushrooms and bell peppers ($17.95), piccata (with lemon, capers, butter and white wine) and vitello alla parmigiana (with pomarolo sauce and cheese, $17.95).

Chicken dishes include pollo marsala ($14.95), pollo griglia (grilled game hen with white wine, garlic and rosemary sauce, $15.95) and petto di pollo (breast of chicken with sun-dried tomatoes, spring onions and artichokes in white wine sauce $14.95). Pork chops with garlic, rosemary and white wine, costolette di miale, are $15.95. Other main courses include calamari steak ($14.95), bistecca (rib-eye steak, $16.95), petrale alla Fiorentina (fresh baked sole on a bed of spinach with white wine and lemon sauce, $15.95), salcissie alla pepperonata (sausage with peppers, $12.95), melanzane alla parmigiana (eggplant parmesan, $12.95) and two prawn dishes, gamberi al timo (with scallops and mushrooms, $19.95) and bordolese (sauted with garlic, rosemary and white wine, $19.95).

La Strada is located at 6240 Napa-Vallejo Highway in American Canyon. For reservations, call 226-3027.

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