What does one’s imagination create when pondering the concept of la dolce vita? Lying on the beach? Dressed to the nines for a night at the opera? Sophia Loren?
La dolce vita is all I could think about sipping the Chiarello Family’s exquisite Chiara Bianco Ribolla Gialla, contemplating the revelation that is Bottega’s polenta under glass. Served in a canning jar with the lid open (so the polenta really is more “inside” glass), the polenta arrives heated to a lusciously soft consistency that no polenta has ever seen, and is so robust in flavor than any other polenta you’ve likely encountered. We’re talking about polenta here, the side dish everyone dreads to see with that tempting fish or steak you were originally planning to order. Usually polenta, or corn meal, or also considered baby food, is a waste of plate space. It’s a plate and stomach filler. Not here whatsoever.
Michael Chiarello and his executive chef Robert Hohmann elevate the humble polenta to unseen before gastronomic heights. Caramelized mushrooms relax atop the polenta until your server instructs you to spoon both the polenta and mushroom together when serving onto your plate. The polenta’s creaminess is as majestic as Jöel Robuchon’s mashed potatoes, with far less actual cream involved. After serving, you pour from the miniature pitcher of balsamic game sauce, lending an acidic-meaty kick to the sweet earthy mushrooms and that precious polenta. In the hands of a master, a common peasant dish such as polenta can be transformed into a meal centerpiece, where polenta is no longer polenta. It is something far above we could ever have imagined from cornmeal.
The hits keep coming, one after the other at the now three year old Bottega. Like how three year old thoroughbreds are at their prime running in the Kentucky Derby, Bottega has found its groove. Michael Chiarello was one of the stars of the Napa Valley in the 1990’s with his rustic Italian cooking at Tra Vigne in St. Helena. That success led of course to television, with a Wine Country meets Italian cooking themed show on PBS that was a staple of my Saturday mornings growing up (along with Lidia Bastianich and Jacques Pépin). Yet something was not fulfilling for Chiarello with just being a television cook. Unlike most television chefs who can’t wait to leave the kitchen for the studio and never want to return back, Chiarello wanted to be at a restaurant again. And, he wanted to be home in the Napa Valley.
Chiarello’s fingerprints are everywhere at Bottega where the Italian countryside seamlessly melds with the vineyard covered hills of Northern California. There are four main dining areas to the rather expansive restaurant. The front space has a more spacious, chic lounge for a casual dining feel, along with the bar where a proper negroni can be crafted or a pour of a special Moonlight Brewing Co. beer on draft can help change the pace of a wine tasting filled day. Outside is a prime patio with seating for 40 that is one of the more glorious settings to while away the sunny afternoon la dolce vita style. The central dining room boasts seating for upwards of 100, dominated by a rustic feel from the exposed brick walls, a tall beamed ceiling, and enormous chandeliers that look like over-sized wine barrel bands. Tucked away is a smaller, darker, more romantic room overseeing the open kitchen. The complex used to be a winery, which shows in the rustic character, but Chiarello has turned this setting into quite the special occasion, celebratory atmosphere without any elegant fuss.
Dish after dish, this casual yet refined Italy by way of the Napa Valley reflected in all dining areas arrives at the table too on the plates. Meals commence with freshly baked bread carried in a towelette and placed actually on the table right in the middle, as if we were at a home in Umbria. With bread this good being ripped left and right, the servers have quite the bread crumb clean up job at the end of the meal. Bread this fresh doesn’t need an accompaniment. No stone can be left unturned here though. The marinated parmesan dip is a such a treat that we ate enough of the bread slathered in it to be considered an antipasti. Butter and olive oil should always be banished in favor of this dip, also available to take home at Chiarello’s Napa Styles store across from Bottega’s entrance.
Even with a party of six, we couldn’t get close to ordering everything that tempted our table. With a party of two, forget about it. Just close your eyes and pick. Roughly half the menu are standards and the other half changes by the season. It’s a rare comprehensive menu with about a dozen each of antipasti and pastas, and five or so main plates and desserts, that covers all the bases without any duds.
That polenta under glass masterpiece will always be there for you, as will the excellent fried brussels sprouts with orange and grapefruit segments, bits of salty proscuitto, and some aged balsamic vinegar lending a trusty hand to the dish like a longtime teacher mentoring a promising student. A seasonal “green egg and ham” featured a confit of Delta asparagus wrapped by culatello ham (very similar to prosciutto), next to a crispy farm egg where the yolk manages to stay in tact despite being liquified, and some creamy cambazola cheese to lend a rich base. Each individual part is beautifully constructed, but is not particularly noteworthy when combined. The cambazola seemed to drown out the others too much.
This is the place for calamari lovers to try a worthwhile fried calamari in Arborio rice flour, or to hop on the meatball bandwagon with the intriguing short rib meatballs with a carrot caponata. Chiarello shines even with the most simple insalata del uve with mixed greens in a verjus vinaigrette, tossed about with plump, sweet oven-dried grapes, sharp pecorino, and candied hazelnuts. It may not be sophisticated, but it is oh so pristine, with just right amount of sweetness in the dressing.
All of the antipasti are a great set-up for the showpiece event: the housemade pastas. Housemade pastas have become a standard across the Bay Area. It’s the masters like Chiarello who know how to take superb, unique styles of pasta, and compose them with innovative new elements. Like polenta, gnocchi certainly has a deservedly bad reputation for being boring and heavy. Instead of the usual semolina flour, Chiarello creates his gnocchi out of potato. Then the feather light gnocchi get pan roasted to a crisp glaze with a pillowy, not doughy center. The beautiful springtime presentation should be a Cezanne still life with the bright green English pea fonduta accenting the line of gnocchi, vividly green brussels sprouts leaves, incredibly soft carrots, and pickled spring onions. I can just see the painting now with the title: Spring, Gnocchi.
Pastas can veer rustic with the signature red wheat tagliarini in a Bolognese veal, pork, and porcini mushroom sugo or a single gigantic potato dough made raviolo stuffed with a farm egg, truffles, spinach, and ricotta in a sage brown butter. Chiarello’s authoritative version of that stick to your ribs Roman classic carbonara is spot on here– with al dente bucatini, a not overly cumbersome creaminess from parmigiano brodo, and no shortage of guanciale. The pride of spring, asparagus, adds a distinct element to the carbonara. On the innovative side, the “Ancient Roman” fettucine is a treat. The twirls of pasta are crafted from cacao nibs, tossed with the sharpest dolce salame imaginable. Trimiti olives, anchovies, meaty artichokes, and Sicilian capers add some salt without going too far. The ginger essence and oregano and pinenut crumble complete the very complex, well thought out dish. They made this in Ancient Rome?
You’ll have room for the short ribs since serving sizes are manageable, perfect for 2-3 dishes per person depending on what you get. The short ribs take 18 hours to be smoked, then braised, forcing them to fall of the bone without any effort. That smoked flavor adds a unique dimension, especially when combined with the smoky horseradish jus. Even if the short ribs weren’t so good, I’d order the dish just for the whole grain mustard spaetzle that take a page from the gnocchi for lightness and caramelized perfection.
Duck is served three ways, as is so in vogue nowadays. The breast gets roasted, joining a confit leg, and duck liver mousse, alongside spiced hazelnuts, watercress, poached rhubarb, and Sierra Beauty apples. Perhaps you’ll instead choose a pork chop with cavalo nero and cinnamon stewed plums or the lone seafood dish of a bouillabaisse-like Mediterranean seafood brodo with paprika saffron rouille. The lunch special burger was an impressive minimalist rendition. The patty gets a helping of short rib meat added, then is slathered with on the verge of too much truffle mayonnaise. It’s an addicting burger (as are the shockingly smooth and potato flavored homemade potato chips with the burger) and one of the easiest to hold too: no clean-up necessary. Truffle oil enemies stay away, though. They should also stay away from the two foot high pile of truffle fries on every other table.
Zeppoles, little Italian doughnut holes, are the pick for dessert. The dough has a pleasant softness from a ricotta base and a touch of lemon adds a brightness. The praline crema with the zeppoles could be sold as a drinking hot chocolate. It tastes like the melted center of your favorite Belgian truffle.
Enough can’t be said about the excellent service, who had to deal with our table’s pressing time schedule (a mistake on our part underestimating the time from Yountville to the San Francisco Airport). All the servers, from sommelier to head waiter, to the bussers who always removed silverware and plates after each course instead of forcing to eat short rib in carbonara sauce, were as crisp and helpful as you’d find down the street at that famous Michelin three star restaurant. Pacing was well done for the time crunch and upon return for a full, leisurely meal, would I’m sure be just as well paced.
As I refer again and again to that la dolce vita ideal, Chiarello has found it in the Napa Valley. His Chiarello Family Vineyards makes some of Napa’s finest wines, including that rare and truly lovely 2011 Chiara Bianco created from the not well known Italian grape Ribolla Gialla. The wine finds that perfect balanced state of a structured, slightly oaky chardonnay, with beautiful fresh fruit notes. Only 100 cases of it were made. Get it now!
What Chiarello aspired for, Bottega absolutely thrives at. Here, families celebrate. The wine is wonderful and flows liberally. People laugh. Couples kiss. Kids complain to Dad that they want to go outside. The food is special and not fussy. It’s a relaxed, cosmopolitan place. It’s where the Napa Wine Country meets Italy. It’s la dolce vita.