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Lodi Chefs Share Secrets to Find Tasty Local Flare

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Posted: Saturday, May 28, 2016 12:00 am

Although Lodi is known for its wines, this city offers plenty of options for the foodie in you to enjoy. Pick up your fork (or chopsticks) and dig into a wide variety of cuisines, from American, Italian, Mexican and Chinese to Japanese, Thai, Indian and fusion offerings.

Downtown Lodi features many places to sit out on the patio and enjoy a meal, but good food is spread out throughout the city, from the upscale restaurants to quick carry-out.

Local chefs weighed in on what makes Lodi’s food scene great.

Pete Murdaca | Head Chef, Pietro's Trattoria

Pietro and Amelia Murdaca opened this family-style restaurant in 1957. Today, Pete Murdaca is the owner and chef of the family restaurant, which serves up classic Italian meals.

What’s the menu like at Pietro’s?

The menu is pretty diverse. We have different things from different parts of Italy. We have a great pork chop Milanese, pounded pork chop Milanese style with roasted potatoes, as well as some pasta dishes that we do from various regions.

Our Pasta a la Norma is a typical dish of Sicily. It has braised eggplant in a homemade tomato sauce with rigatoni pasta. We also have a nice wild mushroom risotta with portabello porcini mushrooms. It’s very earthy.

We have lots of different pizzas. Our Margherita pizza is a tradition based on the pizza of Italy. It has fresh whole-peeled tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese and is topped with fresh basil and fresh olive oil, made just down the street from us. 

What makes Lodi a unique place for food?

We have a lot of great things indigenous to the area as an agricultural hub of the county. The tomatoes we use come from the area at Golden Bear Farms. Olive oil comes from down the street. Canned tomatoes we get from Stanislaus.

If you go anywhere within 30 miles of Lodi, there’s great things to offer. Being in such an agriculturally dominated place helps us to have the freshest and best ingredients.

What ingredients do you grow at the restaurant?

We’re transitioning from our winter-spring garden right now and are growing eggplants, tomatoes, Napa cabbage, herbs — like basil and rosemary — and we get all our lemons from the 15 lemon trees around the property.

In the winter we grow broccolini, swiss chard — which we use in our ravioli dishes — and beets. It’s very conducive to what we do in the restaurant

What do you like about being a chef?

Making people happy is always a good thing. I enjoy the atmosphere of a restaurant. I was an athlete in high school and the atmosphere of a restaurant is very much the same as sports. It’s fast-paced and you have to perform or else people don’t come back. My grandfather did this before me, so bigger legacy part of this is important to me.

What are some favorite things to cook outside of being a chef?

My favorite things are simple things. I lived in Italy for 9 months and the best part about Italy was the food. Simple dishes are the best dishes. You don’t need more than four ingredients in a dish. You can really get good flavor out of just a few ingredients. I think the best part about Italian cooking is the simplicity of it.

What should visitors know about the Lodi food scene?

Lodi is growing as a food scene, and it’s only going to get better. I see Lodi as more of a destination place with great restaurants and great wine. Overall Lodi is a great place.

Pietro’s is located at 317 E. Kettleman Lane, Lodi. It is open from 11 a.m. until “9-ish” Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. Friday, and 11:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Call (209) 368-0613 or visit www.pietroslodi.com.

Denis Xenos | Chef and Owner, Denis' Country Kitchen

Denis Xenos serves up breakfast and lunch at the Country Kitchen on Lockeford Street six days a week. Every dish is inspired by his father, Mike Xenos, who taught him how to cook and even bought him the restaurant in 1991. He shares his story of growing up in kitchens and the orders customers request over and over.

How long have you been cooking?

39 years.

What got you into the restaurant business?

My parents owned a restaurant in San Jose, Mike’s XLNT Foods. My job was helping out. Then I was a teenager not really exploring my options and my dad put me to work.

My dad is a genius cook who makes ordinary food really good. He started teaching me breakfasts. We got to work at 5 a.m. and he taught me how to do what he was doing in the morning. Then we moved on to soups, then I learned to make everything on the menu.

How did you end up running a kitchen in Lodi?

Country Kitchen has been around for 75 years. I took over in 91 when I was 30. My dad retired and sold his restaurant in San Jose. He didn’t want me going to work for mean and ungrateful people, so he bought me a restaurant. It gave me a chance to be self-employed, and in charge of something small. We’re only open half a day so I have plenty of family time.

Why do you love to cook?

It makes me identify with my daddy. And it brings pleasure to people. It’s an emotional satisfaction, to eat something you’ve really been craving. It feels good to satisfy tastebuds and souls.

What are three favorite dishes at your restaurant?

Our benedicts sell a lot. We have three kinds: Traditional eggs with a thick slab of Canadian bacon; crab; and a California benedict with avocado. And the hollandaise sauce is really yummy.

People really love our pancakes.

And the biscuits and gravy are unique. They’re not regular round drop biscuits. They’re square and baked with a cakey texture, almost like cornbread but with buttermilk flavor.

What do you want people to know about your food?

I’m there to please people, to give them more than they expected. We know we’ve done a good job when we’re meeting and surpassing expectations.

Denis’ Country Kitchen is located at 1327 W. Lockeford St. and open Tuesday through Sunday, 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call (209) 368-6350.

Returning to his foodie roots

Richard Berardi was born and raised in the restaurant business, helping his family manage an Italian place in Boulder, Colo. He got out of the industry in his late 20s and spent two decades in sales with a lamination company. When the internet made his business slow down, he wanted to do something for himself. Berardi found a space in Lodi on Guild Avenue that “just looked like a barbecue place,” he said. Tin Roof BBQ opened in 2005 and will celebrate 11 years this June.

Describe your barbecue style.

We do grilled and smoked. Traditional southern style with a California touch, grilled over oak to get the combined flavor.

Why did you come back to restauranting?

The only thing I knew I could do reasonably well is cook.

How did you learn to cook?

My dad and uncle owned the restaurant and I was the screwball in the back. But I read a James Beard cookbook when I was about 19 and started making these wild seafood dishes and I loved it. I’m not a typical chef, but I know what flavors work together.

What dishes sell the best here?

Ribs and brisket. The ribs we throw on the grill with smoke for four or five hours. The brisket takes eight to 14 hours. It’s a big slab or fatty beef, but if you do it right, it’s good. In the beginning I ruined a lot of good meat. Tri-tip is a big seller too. It’s fun to cook, but a pretty forgiving meat.

What’s the challenge in barbecue?

There’s a really small window between undercooked and overcooked, and you have to wait for it, then act. Barbecue is all about patience.

What is unique about running a restaurant in Lodi?

Lodi is a good restaurant town. People appreciate good food here. For a small town, there’s something to it.

Tin Roof BBQ is located at 171 S. Guild Ave. Suite 101 and open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call (209) 366-1128 or visit www.lodibbq.com.

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