For the Altamuras, a winemaking family with local roots going back to 1855, this Yountville restaurant is a labor of love. It shows with the subtle repetition of orange carried through in the thin stripes on the light fixtures, the upholstery on the banquettes and even on the plastic handles of the flatware. It’s reinforced in the bouquet of flowers; the stack of Italian newspapers in the restroom; the oval shape of the cocktail glasses; and in what comes out of chef Polly Lappetito’s open kitchen. The orange-tiled wood oven produces specialties including roast artichokes and romano beans with pancetta, and some of the best pizza in Northern California. Lappetito features riffs on Italian American classics, appropriate for the building constructed in 1916 as an Italian general store. Frank Altamura offers seven variations of the Negroni. The wine list — including the Altamura wines — is good, but can you really pass up Frank’s Negroni?
My dinner last week at Ciccio made me realize that Polly Lappetito is one of the most underappreciated chefs in the Bay Area. At least that’s the case until you taste what comes out of the open kitchen at this Yountville restaurant. Once you have her food you realize how special she is. Lappetito was the chef at Greystone for many years, but she seems to have found her niche at this 53-seat restaurant.
The Altamura family, which has winemaking roots back to 1855, took over the former Gordon’s space about two years ago and turned it into a classic Italian-American restaurant. It’s a fitting tribute for a space that started life more than a century ago as an Italian grocery. The restaurant made the Top 100 list last year and it’s a sure bet it will be there this year.
What’s apparent from the moment you walk in the door is the care that’s gone into every element of the dining experience, just not the food. It shows in the orange handled flatware, in the coordinating stripe on what looks like Deco glass shades on the ceiling fixtures; in the bouquet of roses in the bathroom. Every element is thought out.
The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so there’s often a wait, but the owners installed heaters on the front porch for everyone waiting there. It’s something not too many owners would think to do unless they used the space for additional table seating.
For his part, Frank Altamura includes seven variations of the Negroni on the cocktail list, including one named for him. I love this classic drink, and I’ve had few better examples than what’s served at Ciccio.
Lappetito and her crew turn out puffy-crusted pizza with just the right amount of chew — it’s one of my favorites in the Bay Area — as well as gentle reinventions of classics such as chicken cacciatore, pork Milanese, whole roasted fish and chicken sauteed in brown butter, which I enjoyed on my recent visit. Every dish is precisely seasoned, including artichoke hearts cooked in the wood oven with a walnut bagna cauda, and a simple cacio e pepe — bucatini with black pepper.
one of those rare restaurants that I could go back to weekly, and feel
comforted but never bored.
Pizza seems as if it would be a simple preparation to master, but talk to anyone who tries to make it right and it will sound like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill and never quite making it.
The heat of the oven, the yeast and the type of water in the crust, and the weather can become the enemy of consistency.
Pizza is truly an artisan endeavor. I did a tour of pizza places in the Napa Valley and, while I didn’t expect perfection, I was surprised at how lame some versions were, even at places that have a reputation for producing a great product.
However, I did find five that would bring me back for more. Each is a little different, so we asked the staffs what they do to set their version apart, and what they think is the perfect pairing with their pizza.
This restaurant opened last year, taking over the space that once housed Gordon’s. The building was built in 1916 as the Italian Grocery Store, and still has the feel of a country store.
The restaurant is the vision of Frank and Karen Altamura and their two sons, Frank and Giancarlo. They own the winery of the same name and land that has been in the family since 1855.
The oven is fired by oak, and the temperature is around 600 degrees, designed for the crust, which is a mixture of 00 flour, sourdough, semolina and whole wheat. It produces a thin, full-flavored crust that is firm and pleasantly chewy.
Just about anything that comes from the wood oven is exceptional, including broccolini ($8) and chicken Parmesan ($16), boneless pieces of meat under a blanket of tomato sauce and cheese. I’m still marveling at the simple goodness of the spaghetti with olive oil and garlic ($12).
Pizza offerings: All five of the pizzas are $16. Toppings change regularly, but you can always count on the margherita; one with tomato, spinach and ricotta; and potato, arugula and three cheeses. My favorite: sausage, salami, pepperoncini and smoked mozzarella.
Beverage selection: The staff recommends the Altamura Sangiovese, of course. And in their defense, it is a great match with the pizza with sausage and salami.
At first I thought picking the top 10 restaurants I reviewed this year would be easy. I was wrong.
When you’re in the middle of the grind, it’s difficult to reflect on where you’ve been because all your effort is concentrated on where you’re going. So when I looked back at all the restaurants I reviewed this year, I realized I could write a top 20 list and still leave out noteworthy spots. But the challenge - and part of the fun – of creating the list is to move the pieces around, revisiting some of them and seeing what happens.
This was one of the most diverse list of contenders I remember, both in geography and in range of cuisines. On the broader list there were, for example, two Spanish places - Bravas Bar de Tapas in Healdsburg and Coqueta in San Francisco; two bars that raised food to new levels - Trick Dog and Hard Water; and two Italian winners - A16 in Oakland and Ciccio in Yountville.
At least three American spots were contenders - Sir and Star in Olema, Farmshop in Larkspur and Bull Valley Roadhouse in Port Costa; two Mexican - Padrecito in San Francisco and Nido in Oakland; and three Japanese places - Ramen Shop in Oakland, and Akiko’s and Roka Akor, both in San Francisco.
There was also one British-inspired restaurant, the Cavalier; several that gently cross boundaries, such as Tosca Cafe; and some with a menu that’s hard to categorize, including Chalkboard in Healdsburg.
It turns out 2013 was a really good year. I found innovative places in the North Bay and East Bay, although pickings continue to be slim on the Peninsula; places opened, but none that I know of have risen above the bar of good neighborhood spots.
The diversity of the list speaks to the growing trend of chefs who use their ethnic heritage to produce food that has meaning to them, rather than relying strictly on the ever popular Cal-Med formula, which dominated the openings a decade or so ago.
I’m talking about chefs like Josh Skenes, who is obsessed with fire at Saison and earned four stars for food this year. At the Palace, Manny Torres Gimenez infuses touches of his Venezuelan ancestry into the menu at this bare-bones place where the three-star food far outshines the surroundings.
The must-have menu items this year seem to be kale salad, in versions that cross cultures; and roast chicken. It’s as if chefs were paying tribute to Zuni Cafe’s Judy Rodgers, who died this month and produced the chicken that everyone else tries to emulate. It was a staple on at least three of the top 10 menus.
Paring the list - it follows, in no particular order – down to 10 became a challenge, so I used every excuse I could to exclude places and I returned to some I reviewed earlier this year to see whether they were still as good as I remember. I didn’t consider A16, which by all rights could be there, because it’s technically a branch of the San Francisco outpost.
So what do I wish for in the next year? More chefs who continue to celebrate their heritages, and some really great Chinese restaurants. Given the Bay Area’s population, we could easily support several.
It would be easy for this Yountville restaurant to fall into the tried-and-true Italian classics category, but thanks to the cooking of Polly Lappetito and Megan Carolan, the result is fresh and vibrant.
The frequently changing menu might feature veal saltimbocca ($16) topped with slices of lemon on a bed of wilted spinach; chicken Parmesan ($16) with chunky tomato sauce and a thick layer of cheese; chicken cacciatore ($16) with green olives and tomatoes; or whole roasted fish ($22) accented with Calabrian chiles. Pastas and pizza are also first rate.
The interior of the restaurant, which started out in 1916 as an Italian general store, shows its layered history, but the keen attention to the details makes the dining room rise above the ordinary.
Owners Frank and Karen Altamura and their sons Frank Jr. and Giancarlo, members of a winemaking family that has been in Napa Valley since 1855, have lovingly returned the business to its Italian roots. Frank has put his stamp on the menu with his own Negroni ($13), one of seven on the cocktail list.
Less than 10 miles from the town of Napa, Wooden Valley occupies a 2-mile stretch of rolling hills and lush farmland, where plums, pears and walnuts dot the land and grapes grow in abundance.
At its heart sits Altamura Winery.
A family-run operation, the winery is the only one of its kind in this hidden locale, set back from the street with no sign to announce its presence. Yet, its owners are anything but off the radar.
Wine Country fixtures, the entire Altamura family - Frank; his wife, Karen; and sons Frank Jr., 27 and Giancarlo, 25 - were born and raised in Napa. Frank and Karen started the winery at their Wooden Valley property in 1985, but it wasn't until they opened their popular Yountville restaurant, Ciccio, in late 2012 that the affable family solidified their place at the center of the Napa Valley scene.
To ask patriarch Frank, both businesses happened without much fanfare - or, for that matter, a blueprint of any kind.
"I had no plan," Altamura admits. "I thought maybe if I was lucky I could grow grapes and sell them. And then the next step was making a little bit of wine, and that turned out OK, so I made a little more."
Always passionate about farming, food and cooking, he viewed the restaurant as a natural step. Still, he says, it was somewhat spontaneous - he leased the building before deciding on a concept or chef.
Built in 1916, the small wooden building at the north end of Yountville was an Italian grocery that Frank used to visit as a child. Although it has housed other businesses since, he always felt a connection to the original. So when it became available a few years ago, he felt an intrinsic pull to tie down the lease. What he'd do with the place would come later.
Although it was three decades earlier, the launch of the family winery also was a direct result of the land acquisition that preceded it.
The 400-acre property has been in the family since 1855, when Karen's relatives came from Kentucky in an ox-pulled wagon and settled on it. At the time, her ancestors used it mainly to raise cattle.
That was her mother's lineage. Her father's side came to the United States from Genoa, Italy; Frank's grandparents came around the turn of the century as well, from Puglia. Both families were in the Napa Valley by the 1940s and knew each other well - even to the point that Frank and Karen's parents set them up. They've been married for 32 years.
When Karen's mother died, the Wooden Valley ranch, at that point largely unused, was left to the newlyweds. Frank had been learning about viticulture and winemaking, working his way through a few different vineyards - Sterling, Trefethen and Caymus among them.
"They knew, leaving it to us, that we'd do something with it. And that we'd keep it in the family," Frank says.
If younger son Giancarlo is any indication, they've done just that. A graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a focus on winemaking and viticulture, Giancarlo says there was never any doubt he'd end up in the business.
"I've always loved being outside, being out here," Giancarlo says, surveying the land.
Not only did high school sciences pique his interest, he says, but he has a deep attachment to Wooden Valley, remembering childhood days running around with friends while Dad grilled hot dogs from the winery building. "We used to play paintball in the hills," he reminisces.
Now, alongside Frank, Giancarlo plays a role in every aspect of the business. He's hands-on with the winemaking, does much of the planting, bartends at the restaurant at night and makes most of the pizza dough.
"I thought bartending a few nights a week for him was really good," Frank says, "getting to know the flavor profiles of the wine and food, hearing comments and just interacting with people. You can get stuck out in Wooden Valley pretty easily."
It was important to Frank that everyone in the family could get involved if that was their choice.
"In the beginning, when I got the idea to do the restaurant, I said to both boys, 'If you want to be a partner, you have to put money in, and you have to work.' And that's what they did."
Family responsibilities are split, with Frank and Giancarlo doing the creative hands-on work, and Karen and Frank Jr., or "Frankie" - a software engineer - taking care of the books and, as the elder Frank lovingly puts it, the "computer crap."
"They keep us out of trouble," jokes the patriarch, admitting that it allows him and Giancarlo to do the fun stuff.
And for a small operation, there's plenty of work to be done, in the restaurant and especially in Wooden Valley.
About 60 of the 400 acres are in vine, mostly red grapes, including Italian varieties like Negroamaro and Sangiovese. Only a small plot is planted in Sauvignon Blanc.
Wooden Valley Product
The wines are 100 percent varietals; no blending. "So whatever comes off the ranch that year, it's a good expression of what's going on in Wooden Valley at that time," Frank says.
The winery sits at 800 feet, with eight or nine types of soil.
"There are a lot of variables on this one ranch that are all different parts of Napa Valley," says Frank. "We're very lucky to have that."
The winemaking has stayed on the small side, selling out each year to collectors, hobbyists and other loyal customers who have come to know the Altamura wines.
Now, says Frank, many are bottled specifically for the restaurant. "It's really fun when you have them with the food they were meant for."
That food is a rustic collection of pizzas and smaller plates that speak to Altamura's Southern Italian background.
Frank says he got lucky from the start. As soon as he took over the lease, the Yountville paper ran a small piece about it, saying that he intended to open a small Italian trattoria. That - and giving it his childhood nickname, Ciccio, which roughly translates to "little Frankie" - was as far as his planning had gone.
Polly Lappetito, who had been working as the executive chef at the nearby Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, called Altamura to find out what he had in mind.
"I said I had no idea, but asked her to come by and see the space," Frank recalls. The two hit it off and began collaborating on a nightly-changing menu using the freshest ingredients they could find - including chile peppers, tomatoes and herbs that grow on the Wooden Valley property.
"I just wanted really good food for people at a really good price," he says.
Indeed, the approachable, extremely affordable menu - not to mention the high quality of the food - has kept the restaurant packed since its opening. Dishes like wood-fired cauliflower with crisp breadcrumbs, unctuous cacio e pepe - a creamy, thick pasta with loads of black pepper - a whole fish laminated with Calabrian chile oil, and chewy pizzas draw patrons willing to endure a wait that can stretch over two hours.
In addition, Frank's attention to detail includes touches ranging from the antique meat slicer wedged into a corner of the open kitchen to the old Italian movie and cartoon posters. He has a zeal for collecting, and this space has allowed him to trot out many of his prizes.
"It's exactly like I would have dreamed it would happen," says Frank, at the same time admitting he was nervous because of how stuffy things can get in Napa. But his fears were unfounded.
"We've got kids, dogs, the whole works," he says, laughing. "One night there was a little girl walking up and down the aisles playing a harmonica."
For now, the Altamuras are soaking up the restaurant's success as well as its mayhem. Looking out over his Wooden Valley ranch, Frank shrugs when he talks about his businesses.
"It just worked out," he says. "Sometimes things do."
And to see the family at Ciccio on a busy Saturday night, it's clear that they're enjoying every second.