Napa's long Italian love affair rolls on

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 10:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 10:43pm

"Our minestrone is the best. I use my mother-in-law's recipe - people come in and buy it by the quart. I can't tell you what's in it, because then I'd have to kill you," Negri's proprietor Evelyn Negri laughs before continuing to extol the virtues of the restaurant's heirloom Italian family dinner dishes.

"We also have home-made ravioli and gnocchi; everyone tells us that they're the best."

Negri's has been serving hungry patrons in California's wine country since the late 1930s. It is located in Occidental, a town 100km north of San Francisco on the highest point of the old narrow gauge railroad which once hauled giant redwood logs to the mills. When it first opened Negri's Occidental was a pitstop for many travellers on the San Francisco-Eureka "Iron Horse". Theresa Negri cooked and Joe Negri ran the bar; today, Theresa's daughter-in-law Evelyn Negri and her daughter Sandy Negri manage the homespun dining room.

Couples cuddle up in front of the fireplace; Italian paintings depicting wine and cheese, some painted by sister-in-law June Rossini, adorn the walls. Favourites such as Noni's "world famous" home-made meat ravioli - a blend of beef, pork, swiss chard and herbs - are still made from recipes passed down from Theresa's family in Lucca; every main course comes with minestrone soup, a green salad, antipasto, ravioli, zucchini pancake, salami and a baguette and is served with fries, mashed potato or seasonal sautéed vegetables.

"We also have a delicious duck on our menu," says Evelyn. "We roast it in the morning, get all the fat off it and serve with an Italian-style brown gravy."

Napa and Sonoma might be most famous for their wines and high-end dining, but there are also myriad old-school Italian eateries catering to those who like it homespun rather than haute. Thousands of Italian immigrants settled the region in the 1860s to work in the quarrying and timber trade; many of their descendents still live in the valleys' charming towns and most Italian eateries are steeped in local history.

Ca'Bianca - set in the Marshall House, built by Californian pioneer James Marshall in 1876 - evokes a provincial family mansion. The villa - family-owned and operated for 35 years - feels like it could double as a mob boss movie set.

When Anita Andrews, sister to Muriel Fagiani, was murdered at Fagiani's restaurant in the early '70s, the distraught owner shut up shop and it remained exactly as it was for decades. It reopened last year in The Thomas hotel. With the original bar and sign, it quickly became one of the hottest places to eat and drink in Napa town.

Dinucci's, inside the former 1908 Depot Hotel, was first opened as a restaurant and guest house by Henry and Mabel Dinucci in 1939; when the Wagner family bought Dinucci's in 1968, they continued the tradition of Italian dinners - the phrase "Dinucci's Italian Dinners, Family Style" is even daubed on the property's whitewashed walls in metre-high black letters. Dishes such as chicken cacciatore, baked Italian style with fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, vegetables and herbs, and cannelloni crepes stuffed with ground veal and chicken with seasoned tomato sauce and mozzarella areserved with antipasti, Franco-American sourdough, minestrone, garden green salad and pasta a la Bolognese.

Families on a tight budget can also find hearty Italian fare to take away: Lawler's and Clemente's, both housed in liquor stores, are known for their lasagne and original malfatti ("poorly made") dumplings invented by Theresa Tamburelli at the Depot Restaurant (now Dinucci's) in 1925 after running out of ravioli when hosting a visiting baseball team.

Of course, wine country also has its fair share of more upscale Italian eateries. Tra Vigne, housed within a high-ceilinged, ivy wreathed red-brick building and Tuscan-inspired courtyard in Saint Helena has just celebrated 25 years of trading on the flavours and ambience of old world Italy and the fresh, local ingredients of wine country (chef Nash Cognetti's hand-pulled fresh mozzarella is a must-try).

Michael Chiarello's Bottega in Yountville has been ranked best newcomer by Zagat, in the top 10 by Forbes and the top 20 by Esquire; his micro regional menu of dishes such as beet and robiola fresca cheese ravioli, and seafood brodetto with gulf prawns, savoury clams, Monterey calamari, mussels, forno-confit tomato broth and paprika/saffron rouille incorporates pastas, cured meats, fresh cheeses and cured olives made in-house.

Bistro Don Giovanni - known affectionately as "Don G's" - is another mainstay of the local dining scene. After opening and expanding the celebrated Piatti restaurant chain with Claude Rouas in the late '80s, Donna and Giovanni Scala established this independent eatery on the main Napa road in 1993, to bring the best of northern Italy and the Napa Valley together. Sadly, Donna died a few months ago, but chef Scott Warner has taken up her mantle, using premium Italian imports and fresh raw ingredients from local farmers complemented by vegetables and herbs from the restaurant's garden.

They serve Five Dot Ranch filet mignon carpaccio with capers on a bed of spicy wild arugula picked from the garden, and finished with freshly shaved parmesan and tart lemon. A multicoloured beet and haricot bean salad with avocado, with chunks of Roquefort and fennel is another winner.

"The menu is mainly northern Italian dishes with some local dishes. Our hamburger; the carpaccio, salmon and fritto misto have been here since the beginning," says Warner.

When eating family-style Italian food in California's wine country, remember to clear your evening of all other engagements.