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Farm to table

Lodi restaurateurs take food into their own hands by growing produce and herbs for their own dishes.

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Posted: Friday, July 29, 2011 8:37 am

A leaf blower sounds from across the parking lot of Pietro’s Trattoria. Sprinklers finish their cycle as the Italian restaurant’s own, Jim Murdaca, checks on his zucchini in the lot.

“These will be ready tomorrow,” he says as he walks along the edge of his property.

Recently, the owner of the 27-year-old restaurant bought land to the west of its location, expanding the parking lot, adding an outdoor seating area and incorporating a seasonal garden into every nook and cranny possible. He also added large windows to one of the banquet rooms overlooking the outdoor eating area and garden.

Fifty citrus trees line the parking lot. Bees flit from flower to flower pollinating the plants that will bear fruit or vegetables that make up Pietro’s menu. An olive tree sits in the corner of the lot. Chives surround St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and ecology. Eggplants grow plump, a few days from being ready.

Murdaca snaps a few leaves of basil, pulls it to his nose and inhales.

“Nothing better than fresh basil,” he says.

Murdaca tries to use all of the space surrounding his restaurant. Even curb beds hold  flowers. Tomato vines cling to trellises, reddening under the morning sun. The fresh tomatoes will be used for a fresh salad. Arugala is planned for the winter crop and will used for Arugala pizza. When the weather changes, so will the menu.

“We will change with the seasons, with different gardens throughout the year. We are growing flowers for our tables. Eggplant is growing for our eggplant lasagna,” he said. “It’s really how I grew up ... with fresh vegetables. It’s great for customers.”

The outdoor patio seats 48 people, and is complete with an outdoor fireplace and fountain. Murdaca gave his contractors, Jeff Gamboni, the landscape architect, and Mike Granlee, of Diede Construction, his vision. The year-long project went smoothly.

“We had a great team. I gave them my vision and then stood out of the way,” Murdaca said.

The al fresco dining adds to the farm-to-table theme.

“I think this is a different experience. You get to see the freshness. This is the big thing now ... I’d say 15 percent of our total fresh foods is from our own garden. It’s the way it used to be,” he said.

“It feels like you’re not in Lodi, but you are. I believe that it’s the future of Lodi. With the wine industry growing, a lot more visitors are coming to Lodi. This is the future. We are agriculture.”

Other Lodi restaurateurs are also catching on to the farm to table trend.

John DeNigris of Habanero Hots grows serrano and chili peppers for dishes at his restaurant. Mint from their restaurant garden is used for their mojitos.

Michael Warren, owner of Crush Kitchen + Bar, designates five-and-a-half acres to grow produce, herbs and eggs for his restaurant.

“The chickens are completely veggie-fed and organic,” Warren said.

The eggs are used for every dish needing an egg, including the homemade pasta.

In the garden now, the chef is growing tomatoes, cucumbers and every variety of squash. He is growing as many heirloom varietals he can get his hands on, and adding a great diversity to the cuisine he prepares. And the list goes on. There are pumpkins, corn, watermelon, heirloom watermelon radishes, beets, peas, chard and 28 fruit trees, including nectarines, pluots, apples and peaches.

Warren is all about sustainability and responsible stewardship. He grows no lettuce in his garden because it takes so much water to grow.

“The water table is so low out here in Wallace. We’re trying to not too affect the earth,” he said.

The fresh chef offers tips to new gardeners wanting to begin their own produce journey.

“Start with great soil. Aerate it. Till it. Add good manure. Even if you have an apartment you can have a garden. Start with a container and use brand new soil. You just have to start. Plant what you like to eat. It will inspire you once you see the fruits of your labor. Just experiment. Try, try, try.”

The farmer and chef says the greatest resource to find seeds, especially heirloom seeds, is the Internet.

“Online is such a great resource. Planetgreen.com has a start package that includes 21 seeds. Beekman1802.com is also an incredible site,” he added.

It is rewarding to Warren to offer such freshness to his restaurant’s diners.

“Knowing I grew it — that my hands have touched this food — that is the benefit for me. Here I am in this agriculture mecca knowing I grow food and make food with a little bit of my soul. That’s the benefit for me,” Warren said.

Contact photographer Jennifer M. Howell at jenniferm@lodinews.com.

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