Biz Beat

Designed to shine; popular valley chef ready to open new Italian restaurant in Ripon

Just like you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, you can’t expect a square restaurant from one of the valley’s most well-rounded chefs.

Instead, Modesto Chef John Surla has built a striking round restaurant filled with glass walls and flowing curves. The upscale Italian eatery Fina by John Surla opens Tuesday, Aug. 6, after more than a year of construction. The new establishment is his third Central Valley restaurant, after Surla’s in Modesto which opened in 2009 and Lola Bistro & Event Center in Hilmar which opened in 2015.

The distinctive exterior look, circular by design, flows inside the 6,000-square-foot space as well as with a central bar, high ceilings and swooping wall-length picture window into the kitchen.

“We wanted the modern design on the outside of Fina to be reflected inside in the design,” said Surla’s wife and the new restaurant’s namesake, Josephine Surla. “We wanted it to all flow together and shine and create something beautiful.”

And beautiful it is thanks to a design that started as a sketch on a bar napkin three years ago from the late Conrad Sanchez, of the Modesto-based design firm Conrad Asturi Studio’s Inc. If you think it looks a bit like the Millennium Falcon from “star Wars,” you’re not alone.

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Fina restaurant in Ripon, Calif., Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. Andy Alfaro

Still, the building’s unique round design at the corner of River and Ripon roads made both the construction and permitting more complicated, delaying the planned opening by more than half a year.

Like all of his restaurants, Surla said the name is personal — named after Josephine’s nickname “Fina.” But as far as cuisine and atmosphere, he strives to set each apart. His signature Modesto restaurant Surla’s serves a modern Asian fusion menu. His Hilmar spot Lola, named after the the Filipino word for “grandmother,” offers more general bistro fare.

Fina makes from-scratch, locally sourced modern Italian food. The pastas are rolled daily, and you can even watch the large pasta maker at work in the open kitchen. The restaurant uses grass-fed meats with the names of each of the farms they come from listed on the menu, as are the local growers and makers of much of the produce, cheese, oils and more.

The menu is split into antipasti (appetizers like beef carpaccio, fried calamari, bruschetta and meatballs over polenta ranging from $5 to $16), primi (first-course pastas including penne bolognese, mushroom ravioli and angel hair pomodoro running $16-$21), and secondi (entree proteins like rib-eye steak, seared scallops, grilled half chicken and Kurobuta pork chop from $26 to $38). And there’s also a wood-burning oven cranking out fresh pizza ($14-$15).

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Grilled brick half chicken prepared during preview night at the new Fina restaurant in Ripon, Calif., Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. Andy Alfaro

The pastas and entrees are rich and flavorful, with great detail given to the sauces and plating. Surla said the menu will change with the seasons, taking advantage of what the Central Valley’s agricultural community has to offer.

Still while the food is upscale fine-dining fare, the restaurant strives to be welcoming to everyone — from those celebrating a special occasions to people dropping in for a quick craft cocktail. The restaurant is split between the main dining room and a casual lounge, with the bar dominating the center.

Fina General Manager Matthew Way said while the service and food may be elevated, he wants everyone to feel comfortable and at home at Fina.

“We live in the valley, this is a farming community so there’s no dress code,” he said. “We welcome everyone to stop in.”

The restaurant has a capacity for 300 between its dining room, lounge, two private rooms and two outdoor patios. The large staff of about 40 all dress neatly in black with ties. For the first month and a half Fina will only be open for dinner service, and then in mid-September add lunch hours. They also plan to add brunch, which has been wildly popular at Surla’s other properties.

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Guitarist Darin Morris provides live music during preview night at the new Fina restaurant in Ripon, Calif., Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. Andy Alfaro

For a preview night a strolling guitarist played around the dining room and lounge, offering pleasant background to any meal. The restaurant plans to have acoustic music occasionally to add ambiance to the dining experience.

The also glassed-in wine room currently has about 50 selections of largely California and some Italian wines and beyond, but Way said that should eventually grow to about 100.

But it’s the other picture window, the some 30-foot glass wall that reveals the entire kitchen, that really sets the restaurant apart. Surla said he wanted to give guests a glimpse into what it takes to make the food. Plus it gives them a chance to see the busy chef and cooks in action.

“People are watching Food Network all the time. They want to see what goes into their food. In a way, cooking is like an art and people just want to see how it gets made,” he said.

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Cook Adrian Hernandez prepares steak n’ potatoes during preview night at the new Fina restaurant in Ripon, Calif., Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. Andy Alfaro

Fina, at 122 W. River Road in Ripon, is open 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday and closed Monday. For more information call 209-452-3600 or visit

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Marijke Rowland writes about new business, restaurant and retail developments. She has been with The Modesto Bee since 1997 covering a variety of topics including arts and entertainment. Her Business Beat column runs midweek and Sundays. And it’s pronounced Mar-eye-ke.
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