California Cucina
By Stacee Harger
Better Homes & Gardens Decorating, Spring 1996

In a small town outside San Francisco, a remodeled kitchen successfully captures the essence of one couple’s favorite Italian island, Sardinia.

Marci and Lou Palatella are in love with all things Italian. Lou’s heritage stems from Italy, he’s traveled there frequently, and it was while he was showing off the island of Sardinia to Marci that they became engaged. Setting up housekeeping in Italy wasn’t practical (it was a vacation, after all), so they did the next best thing: They faxed in a bid on a Mediterranean-style house they’d seen just outside San Francisco. The two returned to California to marry and create their own villa-like haven reminiscent of Sardinia.

Marci, president of a wine and spirits export company, and Lou, a liquor company executive, share a knowledge and appreciation of wines. “Food and wine are a big part of our lives,” Marci says, “and we spend lots of time in the kitchen; for us it’s the heartbeat of the house. We needed a place that would feel good, a place we’d enjoy being in.”

But the kitchen in their dream home wasn’t prepared to fill all the couple’s desires. Built in the 1920s, the house had been drastically remodeled in the 1970s, resulting in a too-small kitchen with a dropped ceiling, dark cabinets, and fluorescent lighting. Not only was the area cut off from the rest of the house, but the previous owners had installed an enormous oak-and-mirror-trimmed bar that engulfed most of the space.

Marci turned to the person who had always given her design advice: her best friend of 20 years, designer Linda Martini. “Linda and I went in and sat on the floor in the kitchen for three hours,” Marci says of an early visit to the house. By the third hour, it became evident that a Band-Aid approach wasn’t going to work; everything would have to be torn out, and they would start anew.

They increased the square footage of the kitchen almost threefold by eliminating an awkwardly shaped TV room that neighbored the old kitchen. Then they had the ceiling returned to its original height and everything ripped out—from the cabinetry down to the mammoth bar. The only remnants of the kitchen as Marci and Lou had found it were the arched window looking out into the side yard, the dark-stained wood-and-tile floor, and the dining area’s six-over-six windows and French doors.

The team tackled its now-blank canvas by starting with the floor. “Both the wood and the tiles of the original floor had been stained—it was dark and gloomy,” recalls Martini. Sandblasting transformed the dark coverings into blonde wood and light terra-cotta tiles.

They agreed on cherry for the cabinets—it would provide warmth and richness—but Martini and Marci wanted to add another texture to the cabinetry. “I wanted to add a metal to the textural mix, and I wanted some brightness and sparkle.” An architect friend of the contractor came up with the mesh-front idea when he came across the material in a hardware store.

The copper mesh cabinetry fronts complement the copper-detailed range hood. This shining crown to the kitchen’s commercial-style range is a scaled-down version of a range hood Marci and Lou had long admired at one of their favorite local eateries. The copper’s shine contrasts distinctively with the matte finish of the stainless-steel hood.

To replicate Sardinian architecture as best they could, Marci and Lou incorporated many typical Mediterranean building materials. “You see [over there] these wonderful mixtures of brick and wood and slate and copper,” says Marci. Slate plays a primary role in the textural scheme of their kitchen—as countertops and on the backsplash. These rough-texture square tiles, ranging from red-brown to gray-green, were used in lieu of more common kitchen counter surfacing materials. “Marci wanted an earthier feel,” Martini says. “The slate was a definite moodmaker. From the moment it was installed, the room took on a richness.”

Integral to the overall feeling of the kitchen/dining area are the stucco-imitating walls. The walls were painted and ragged for texture with what Martini refers to as a “washed-out mustard” color. The finishing touch—painted vegetable garlands—was applied by the deft hand of local artist Kate McIntyre, whose work the Palatellas had admired at a San Francisco restaurant.

The most important element of the kitchen’s work plan: the island. It allows ample space for one, two, or more cooks. “Everybody likes to hang out in our kitchen,” Marci laughs. “We find we can’t really get rid of anybody!” And as Lou, a San Francisco 49ers football player in the early ’60s, points out, “I’m a big guy. When we’re working in here, we aren’t tripping over each other, even when our guests get into the act.”

“We often serve food buffet-style at the island and eat at the table in the dining area,” Marci says. “Everyone serves themselves. We like to serve smaller dishes and lots of them—roasted vegetables, two or three different salads, risottos, pastas, and meats. That’s the way they eat in Sardinia.”

With so many different dishes come mountains of dirty ones. Marci came up with a solution to that problem. Two deep drawers to the left of the sink are divided into four laminated and waterproof compartments. After a meal, Marci and Lou simply bus the dishes into a couple of bins, as at a restaurant, then place the bins in the drawers. No mess, nothing to distract them from their guests, and everything can be easily taken care of later that night. And as Marci says, “If the dishes don’t get done after the party, you don’t wake up to a big mess the next morning.”

Good friends, food, wine, and laughter are the ingredients that combine to make the Palatella kitchen the special place that it is. “When I think of Marci and Lou,” says Martin, “I think: ‘abondanza,’ which is Italian for abundance. And they truly are abundant people—generous and fun.

(page 64)
Though this was a full-scale remodeling project, a few original elements were salvageable, including the expanse of windows over the sink area. “The room and the windows look as though they were made for each other,” says designer Linda Martini. Although Marci is the designated family chef, Lou is always close by to lend a hand and an old family story. “Lou will remember something his mother made—she was an exceptional Italian cook—and try to describe it to me so I can re-create it,” Marci says.

(page 67)
The center island allows guests to sit and chat with their hosts while the meal is prepared. Overhead, shiny stainless-steel-and-copper cookware is decorative and convenient. Copper mesh cabinetry panels add texture.

(page 69)
Double-hung windows and French doors are remnants from the original kitchen. The alder wood table can expand to seat 10 people. “It looks like an Italian country table,” Marci says, “weathered and slightly uneven...lending to the feeling that the kitchen has been around for awhile.”

Local artist Kate McIntyre painted vegetable garlands above all the kitchen and dining area windows, as well as this one over the door leading to the formal dining room. The doorway was arched during the remodeling.

Marci and Martini selected slate tile for the countertops and backsplash because of its slightly rough texture, reputation for durability, and the array of earth-tone colors.


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