About Marcia Gagliardi
Marcia Gagliardi is a freelance food writer in San Francisco. She writes a weekly column, Foodie 411 for the SFCVB on their “Taste” site; a monthly gossip column, “The Tablehopper” for The Northside; and regular features for Edible San Francisco. Her first book came out in March 2010: The Tablehopper’s Guide to Dining and Drinking in San Francisco: Find the Right Spot for Every Occasion.
Latest Posts by Marcia Gagliardi
Northern California, we are desperately Seeking Ramen. Ever since Doug Keane shuttered his haute Japanese noodle bar, Shimo, the North Bay has suffered an appalling lack of decent ramen. There is, of course, Hana Japanese in Rohnert Park, but we’re talking casual, slurp-at-the-table ramen. Well, we’ve finally found it.
~SHIGE SUSHI~ in Cotati is the absolute real deal. The tiny Japanese kitchen simmers pork bone, chicken, and dashi over several days, concentrating the flavors into a cloudy, deeply pork-flavored broth. Slices of pork, a soft-boiled egg, strips of mushroom and green onions, and chewy ramen noodles—all served piping-hot (with a dash or two of togarashi)—make this a sinus-cleansing, soul-warming meal.
Ramen isn’t available every day, so call ahead to make sure they’ve got it. If not, you’re still covered. Shige’s sushi, sashimi, and home-style dishes (like kara-age) easily stand up to the food at Hana Japanese, Hiro’s in Petaluma, and Bennett Valley’s Yao-Kiku. Just don’t tell anyone else about this awesome find, or it’ll be standing room only. Open Tues-Fri, closed Mon. 8235 Old Redwood Hwy, Cotati, 707-795-9753.
Last-Minute Mom’s Day Ideas: Really? You waited until now to figure out where to go for Mom’s special day? Oops, so did we. Here are a few spots where the deliciousness of the meal will redeem your lack of planning.
~ZAZU KITCHEN + FARM~: Fried green tomato BLT Benedict with Tabasco hollandaise, “Momosas,” hot chocolate with housemade cinnamon marshmallows, maple-glazed doughnuts with bacon jimmies, corned beef hash, and more. 9am-10pm. 6770 McKinley St., #150, Sebastopol, 707-523-4814.
~FORCHETTA BASTONI~: Bottomless mimosas entertain Mom; face painting entertains the kids. On the menu, Vietnamese doughnuts, Monte Cristo, loco moco, juk (Asian-style rice porridge), gravlax flatbread, deep-fried waffles, and a Big Ole’ Salad for Mom (fresh from the farmers’ market). 10am-3pm. 6948 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol, 707-829-9500.
~SHED HEALDSBURG~: The recently crowned James Beard Award-winning space will host a Mom’s Day fest for the locavore. Heirloom-grain Belgian waffles with fresh strawberries, rhubarb compote, and whipped crème fraîche; and poached eggs with asparagus, smoked trout, tiny potatoes, and tarragon persillade. All Moms will also receive a fresh herb bouquet that dries beautifully and might enliven a meal she could make from scratch just for you—if you saw her more often. 25 North St., Healdsburg, 707-431-7433.
~SILVERADO RESORT~: Impress Mom with the local bounty of Napa’s spring harvest, including pristine sustainably caught seafood, hormone-free beef and poultry, farm-fresh eggs, and local fruit. Silverado’s pastry chef will also create a dark chocolate fountain. $60 adults, $25 children ages 4-9. 10:30am-2:30pm. 1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa.
The owners of the high-profile ~RENDEZ VOUS BISTRO~ in downtown Santa Rosa (as well as Flipside Burgers, Flipside Steakhouse & Sports Bar, and Lakeside Grill) are planning a “fresh market concept” in the former Rendez Vous Bistro in Courthouse Square, which judging by the name, Flip a Crêpe, will include, uh, crêpes? Reps aren’t talking yet, but it’s slated to open this summer, along with Flipside Brewhouse in Rohnert Park, which was formerly Latitude Island Grill.
~LAKESIDE GRILL~, the outdoor restaurant that opened last year in Spring Lake Park, will open with a limited menu on Saturdays and Sundays from May 17th through Memorial Day, then offer weekend breakfast and brunch, daily lunch and dinner, and a happy hour starting at 2pm all summer long. Hours are 10:30am until the park closes at sunset. 393 Violetti Road, Santa Rosa, 707-523-1406.
~FARM TO FEAST 2014~: On Saturday May 17th, Farm to Feast, the annual food and wine event, pretty much sums up what it’s like to live in Sonoma County. Held at the Summerfield Waldorf School’s breathtaking biodynamic farm, top Bay Area chefs and vintners come together (many of whom are alums or have children at the school) to feast under the stars. Among the feast-makers: Traci Des Jardins of Jardinière, Jon Stewart and Duskie Estes of Zazu, Nick Peyton of Healdsburg Bar & Grill (and formerly of Cyrus), Lowell Sheldon of Peter Lowell’s, and the school’s own chef, Mat Petersen. Vintners pouring include Claypool Cellars, Coturri, Davis Family Vineyards, Littorai, Truett Hurst, Roederer, Small Vines Wines, Porter-Bass, and Martinelli Winery. 3:30pm-10:30pm, $90, all proceeds go to scholarships. Tickets at farmtofeast.org. 655 Willowside Road, Santa Rosa.
~BOUVERIE PRESERVE’S ART OF EATING PICNIC~: Inspired by the life of culinary author M.F.K. Fisher, this annual picnic presented by the Audubon Canyon Ranch invites guests to the limited-access Glen Ellen reserve for a day of eating, drinking, and exploring. Benefitting the ranch’s Nature Education Programs for schoolchildren, the Art of Eating event runs from 12:30pm-4:30pm, with chefs from Brown Sugar Kitchen, Rivoli Restaurant, and Taste Catering providing the food. $150. 13935 Sonoma Highway 12, Glen Ellen.
By 707 correspondent Heather Irwin including all photo credits.
When I was invited to Brazil to learn about Brazilian wine in the Serra Gaúcha region, you can bet one of the first things that went through my head was: trip extension!
With some complicated ticket maneuvering and finagling, I was able to get myself to Rio de Janeiro for a week, a dream destination of mine (heck, of many!).
I tracked down an apartment in Ipanema, a 10-minute walk from the beach.
This was going to be one of my bigger solo trip adventures, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was a bit apprehensive to be arriving in Rio late on a Saturday night.
After me and my sister’s crazy experience getting a cab in the Mumbai airport at 3am, I guess I was ready for anything. I took it as a good omen that my cabbie was the most charming, kind man, who wasn’t out to fleece me—he just wanted to make sure I could see Cristo Redentor, lit up in the night sky and peeking through the clouds.
In fact, I didn’t have a single problem with any of the cabdrivers I had for the entire week in Rio.
A couple were flummoxed by my odd attempt at Portuguese that leaned heavily on a combination of Italian and Spanish words, but most wanted to find out where I was from, practice their English, and get me to where I was going (and of course were stoked with my San Franciscan tipping practices).
A big win for solo (female) travelers doing Airbnb in Rio is that most residential buildings have doormen who will buzz you in and keep a close eye on things. I always felt safe where I was staying.
After checking in with my Airbnb host, I ditched my bag and went out for my first Brazilian pizza at Alessandro E Federico in Leblon.
Considering how many Brazilian pizzas I have ordered from Mozzarella di Bufala here in SF over the years, it was time to have one in its native country, and my hard-boiled egg, black olive, and ham-topped pizza portuguesa did not disappoint (even better with a few shakes of piri piri sauce).
I sat outside at a table on the terrace, drinking some pink bubs, watching the pretty crowd—my week in Rio was officially on.
I was visiting in July, which is their winter, and the temps were the picture of pleasant: in the high 70s/low 80s during the day, and only slightly humid.
Although, bummer, most of the days were cloudy, and I caught some rain too. My sister gave me some great advice, since she stayed in Rio once during the same period.
She said if it was a clear day, to cancel your plans and head to the beach, because there’s no guarantee about having sunny beach days in the winter. She’s a fellow beach and sun hound, so it was good advice. Or save your sunny days to visit Cristo Redentor or Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain)—you’ll want a clear view for those.
Before heading to the praia (beach), I recommend stopping at one of the many sucos bars for fresh juices and açaí bowls (order it “na tigela” to get it in a bowl—I loved mine with granola, guaraná, and banana).
One place that was excellent was Polis Sucos—I was all over the acerola, a sour fruit with a nutty amount of vitamin C (I was fighting a cold on my last few days, and I’m convinced that thing saved me).
If you’re in Leblon, other places that are recommended are Bibi Sucos and BB Lanches (a word that always cracked me up—it means “snacks”). It’s fun to hang out at the open counter (I looooved the alfresco life in Rio), sipping your juice and taking in the scene. Italians have caffès, Cariocas have sucos bars.
A friend recommended suco de abacaxi com hortela (pineapple juice with mint)—what an elixir. I also liked being able to say “maracuja” (passion fruit) whenever possible (it’s also delicious in a caipirinha).
I never made it to this place in Flamengo, which serves fresh açaí, but I sure wanted to. You can also get fresh coconut juice at the many stands for just a few reais on the promenade by the beach.
The beach culture is amazing—lined up along the beach are barracas, beach stands that people are very loyal to. They will rent you a chair, an umbrella, and basically bring you cocktails and cold beers all day—some even serve good food too.
I enjoyed my steak sandwich from Barraca do Uruguay (#80), but it was Barraca do Joel (#79) that rocked my world on another afternoon—I noticed a guy was shaking up drinks like a pro, and I’ll be damned, I had some of the best caipirinhas of the trip while I lazed there in my beach chair. (Yes, plural.)
A few Rio-savvy friends and readers gave me some great tips about which part of the beach to go to.
There are a series of postos that run along the beach, 12 in all (you’ll find bathrooms and changing rooms at each posto). I was told I’d want to park myself between postos 8 and 9, which would be gay/mixed, with “cool kids and weed smokers.” All good by me.
There are also some rainbow flags along that stretch, but I saw fabulous gays mixed in all along the beach, not just in a designated area (although the beach was definitely gay-dense at the end of my street, Rua Farme de Amoedo).
Ipanema is full of gays, so I felt like I was back in SF with all my boys—except everyone was tan and wearing tight shorts. As you go toward postos 10 and 11 in Leblon, you’ll find more rich, famous, and fashiony folks on the beach.
Sure, it’s intimidating to show up on a Rio beach all pasty and overweight, but you know what? These people don’t know you. You will probably never, ever see them again.
And they really don’t care. So enjoy yourself. That was my attitude at least. Sure, there are hardbodies and painfully gorgeous women, but not everyone is beach Adonis/Aphrodite material—I saw allll types.
Although yes, I did see some really amazing specimens of humanity. The Cariocas are some mighty fine people. Anyway, don’t stress out about it and have fun.
There is so much action—beaches in Mexico have nothing on Ipanema. There is a constant swirl of men selling food and drinks and snacks and bathing suits and hats.
You just have to barely wave and they’ll come right over. My heart broke for some of them trudging through the sand, schlepping the heavier stuff.
The beach is a total circus. I can only imagine what it’s like in peak season.
There’s the incessant yelling of “BISCOITO GLOBO!” (they are sweet or salty doughnut-shaped biscuits, a classic beach treat), and I was always happy to espy the guys dressed in white hawking “pão árabe pão árabe pão árabe!” (an awesome stuffed pita-like bread)—I also enjoyed the savory empadas, and the Matte Leão (iced tea) guys will refresh you. All without ever leaving your chair. Magic!
On my first visit, I didn’t bring anything of real value to the beach (besides my phone).
Left my precious camera and all my credit cards in the apartment, and when I wanted to walk on the beach or go in the water, I sussed out some folks nearby and asked if they would watch my bag (and brought it over to them). People are so nice, so don’t worry, you’re not a bother. There is theft that can happen on the beach, but just pay attention to what’s going on around you.
The sand is so fine, and fluffy, and white. (You’ll track it everywhere.) The water is a little rowdy, so don’t just hop in—see where other folks are swimming.
And you don’t want to miss a sunset on the beach (go to Arpoador for some of the best).
The peachy-pink colors and the water and the dramatic backdrop of the mountains combine to make it such a breathtaking sight; one evening everyone around me made it so much more amazing: they applauded. I get goose bumps even writing about it, it was such a sweet, appreciative moment.
Hard-core beach lovers will want to consider trekking out of town to Prainha, which is supposedly beyond gorgeous (and not tooooo far, it’s about an hour south)—if you do go there, you have to eat at Restaurante Bira, famous for its moqueca (the owner is a fisherman), shrimp pasteis, and view (a friend warned that they don’t usually stay open past early afternoon, so try to arrive early).
I did a ton of walking in Rio. You’ll want to walk around a bunch—it was all so lush and tropical, trees dripping with vines, and there’s a fading modern glamour to a lot of the buildings.
went bonkers for the patterned, tiled pavement (calçada portuguesa) everywhere—seeing the iconic geometric wave pattern on the Copacabana promenade (designed by Roberto Burle Marx) for the first time brought a huge smile to my face.
But those little tiles are murder when it’s raining, and are really easy to catch and trip on (and especially tough if you’re in heels), so tread carefully.
You’ll also see some of the best street art and graffiti, it’s everywhere.
There were a few times I felt a little sketched out, but I mostly felt pretty safe. I always kept my camera and phone stashed away, and took a look around before taking them out of my shoulder bag (I swear by my Basil Racuk Monterey bag). Sometimes, I missed a shot I wanted, but that’s okay.
I was told that the food in Rio wasn’t going to blow my mind, and I didn’t have the budget to hit up a bunch of awesome (but spendy) places like Roberta Sudbrack.
But I found so many spots that I really enjoyed, namely all the botecos/botequims that reminded me of Spanish tapas bars, with people hanging out, drinking choppes (which are draft beers—someone thankfully explained to me “chopp” comes from German: “Schopp”), and snacking on petiscos (I was digging all the little bolinhos (croquettes) and savory pasteis (little tarts).
Some favorite botecos were definitely the old-school Jobi (which is where I went after Brazil won the Confederations Cup in 2013 and the city exploded—can you believe I was in Rio for that?), and Bar Bracarense had some of the best bites (loved their coxinha de frango with catupiry cheese and their bolinhos de aipim).
One of my favorite nights was in Copacabana—in between catching a few pickup/live music sessions at the utterly charming Bip Bip (open since 1968!), I walked over to the stand-up counter at Restaurante O Caranguejo (it was like Rio’s version of Swan Oyster Depot). All seafood. Salty servers. Folks around me were tipsy, happy to chat you up while you drink your chopp and eat warm shrimp empadas and octopus salad. Loved this place.
Then it was back to Bip Bip—the well-seasoned owner who has seen it all is parked out front at his table, with his ledger and change and beer—people walk in to the back of the shoebox space that’s shingled in memorabilia, grab a cold beer from the fridge, and then gesture to him and he writes it down on his pad of paper.
You can stand around with other folks, listen to the sambaistas play as they sit around the table inside (or whatever that night’s genre of music is), and pay up at the end of the night. Pro tip: people don’t clap after a song, they snap their fingers. It was all so groovy.
You really, truly don’t want to miss a visit to the Copacabana Palace. (I know, go ahead and sing it.) This white palace is stately and elegant without being ostentatious—it’s truly so grand.
For Sunday brunch, Pérgula Restaurant puts on quite the spread (for R$170, about $75), and if the weather is right, you can sit outside overlooking the chic pool area while servers dressed all in white swarm around tables, clearing plates and continually filling your glass. It’s a perfect place for you to get tipsy on bubbles, flaunt your sunglasses, and do some excellent people watching. It’s faaaaabulous.
I started with a plate of caviar and blini (and was very happy to see their house sparkling wine was Cave Geisse—finally, a Brazilian restaurant honoring their domestic product!) and almost needed to pinch myself.
It was one of those moments. (“I’m in Rio de Janeiro. I am having brunch at the Copacabana Palace. It’s balmy and all so beautiful. This is crazy. I can’t believe my life.”).
There was so much seafood, including these unusual mussels with a huge red spot on them served in a vieira sauce, and towers of shrimp, and so many hot dishes too. Extravaganza. Good luck making it to the platters of desserts. They also put on a feijoada Saturday lunch, but it might put you in a serious coma, so be careful.
Another thing you have to do: experience the Brazilian churrascaria. For a culture known for being so healthy and gorgeous, they sure seem to chow down.
I have had many Italian family and holiday meals to prepare me for massive consumption in one sitting, but I still don’t think I have a handle on how to best manage the churrascaria experience. Just show up hungry, that’s for sure.
One morning I went to the top of Sugarloaf, and then had lunch at Porcão Rio, which has a stunning view of Sugarloaf and the bay. The lunchtime extravaganza was R$112 (about $50).
There’s a caipirinha station, and then the most insane salad bar spread you’ll ever see in your life. Everything is carefully plated and presented (there’s a hell of a lot of garnish, and I have never seen chives used with such abandon). It’s a bit campy and over the top, but everything is really fresh.
For my first round at the salad bar, I tried a medley of items like a salmon and omelet roulade, and any chance I could get in Brazil, I was serving myself the fresh hearts of palm (obsessed!).
I also tried their cold mussel salad, and carpaccio, and noticed a bunch of creamy + fish combos (Brazilians seem to dig those). No, the sushi bar was not going to be getting any action from me—I had to save up room for the meats. Was happy to find a 375ml of Casa Valduga sparkling on the wine list, come to mama.
The staff was incredibly nice and of course being a solo female diner means you get lots of extra attention. It was time for the meats: the roving meat carvers come to your table, proffering all kinds of cuts, from salty sirloin to rib-eye to saucy pork ribs to chicken hearts to linguiça.
Beef and cheese, why not? The beef can be really seasoned and a bit chewy, but then suddenly you get a cut of the novilho (veal) and you’re like, ahhhh, damn, that’s really good. It’s a total adventure in food pushing, and you’re never exactly sure which cut they’re putting on your plate.
Your table is also loaded with fried aipim (cassava), farofa, fries, and don’t forget the vinegary Brazilian salsa on the table, so good with the meats. I walked out of there feeling as sturdy and stout as Pão de Açúcar.
Want to check out a bunch of great San Francisco restaurants and bars in one place, and help out a local public school?
Look no further than the ~TASTE OF POTRERO~ event on Thursday May 8th, which features tons of food from great local restaurants and is a benefit for Daniel Webster Elementary, a public school in Potrero Hill.
First up, six local bars will be mixing signature cocktails using Anchor Distilling spirits, including folks like Comstock Saloon, Trick Dog (in the VIP room only), Beretta, and Third Rail. Plus, more than 30 restaurants will participate (including food trucks), ranging from Hog & Rocks to El Sur food truck to Piccino.
The event is a fundraiser for Daniel Webster Elementary, and it ensures that the students have access to computers, books for their classrooms, and instruction materials. It’s a great cause, and it happens from 7pm-11pm at The NWBLK.
General admission tickets are $100 per person. VIP tickets, which include early admission at 6pm, access to a special tasting room, and a special whiskey tasting from Anchor, are $200. 1999 Bryant St. at 18th Street, San Francisco.
A San Francisco Bernal Heights restaurant ~BLUE PLATE~ is celebrating a whopping 15 years in business this May, which is pretty phenomenal. They’ve lined up a series of winemaker dinners to toast the occasion, with wine flights of five tastes for $15.
First, on Thursday May 1st, Steve and Chrystal Clifton of Palmina Wines will be in attendance from 5:30 pm-10 pm, followed by Sean Thackrey Wines on Friday May 2nd from 5:30 pm-10:30 pm, and Skylark on Saturday May 3rd from 5:30 pm-10:30 pm. The winemakers will all be on hand, mingling with guests and talking about their wines.
The menu from the talented chef Sean Thomas will be served à la carte, and here’s a sample menu of what to expect. Reservations are available.
Let’s toast to this wonderful neighborhood restaurant! Big cheers to co-owners Cory Obenour and Jeff Trenam on 15 years of keeping us wined and dined. 3218 Mission St. at Valencia Street in San Francisco CA — 415-282-6777.
Pork belly from Belly Left Coast Kitchen in Santa Rosa, just one of the more than 100 restaurants participating in Sonoma County Restaurant Week March 10-16th, 2014, which is roughly an hour north of San Francisco California.
Beef tartare from Partake by K-J, which will be served during Sonoma County Restaurant Week.
Trillium chef Jeremy Baumgartner prepares for the opening of the new Mendocino restaurant. Photo courtesy of Trillium Cafe.
Sonoma County Restaurant Week (Monday March 10th through Sunday March 16th): I always feel like I need to announce Restaurant Week with the same voice Oprah used to announce that her audience was flying to Australia in 2010. “And you get a three-course dinner for $19! And, you get a three-course dinner for $29!” I’d shout over the screaming audience. Talk show dreams aside, it’s hard to believe this is the fifth year that Sonoma County celebrates its hardworking restaurateurs with a five-day celebration of all things delicious.
With well over 100 restaurants spanning Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Healdsburg, Petaluma, the coast, and everything in between, this is your chance to hit up some of those restaurants you have been dying to try, but just haven’t been to yet.
New this year: two-course lunch menus for $10, $15, or $20. Three-course dinner menus remain at $19, $29, and $39. I’ll have a full list online, as well as some of my favorite menus, but some of the newcomers you may want to check out include:
- Palooza Gastropub (8910 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood) is featuring their wedge salad; beef cheeks or chef Chris Hanson’s luxe vegetarian risotto made with Speakeasy lager, mushrooms, and seasonal veggies; and s’mores on a stick, $39.
- 38 Degrees North Lounge (100 Boyes Blvd., Sonoma): Sonoma Mission Inn’s hot new restaurant serves up roasted beet salad, beef sliders, and crème brûlée, $39.
- Belly Left Coast Kitchen (523 Fourth St., Santa Rosa): Love this downtown SR restaurant that’s got a killer pork belly with hoisin and Campfire Stout chocolate mousse, $29.
- Red’s Apple Roadhouse (4550 Gravenstein Hwy., Sebastopol): One of my favorite off-the-beaten-path newcomers is doing both lunch ($15, pulled pork sammie or portobello mushroom burger with hand-cut fries and pie) and dinner ($19) featuring their famous fried chicken supper or beer-braised pork belly.
- Best Value, Partake by K-J (241 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg): BiteClub is pretty floored by the $29 and $39 dinner menus that include four-plus courses of chef Justin Wangler’s life-altering food with multiple wine pairings. Think oysters with white verjus, smoked loin of lamb, white chocolate panna cotta, beet tartare, and Meyer lemon pudding. Now, keep in mind, each course is just a few luxurious bites rather than a craggy mound of food. But we’d far rather eat well than prodigiously.
Good news from our neighbors to the north: The Baked Alaska is back.
Granted, we’ve cherry-picked this Mad Men-era dessert (ice cream and sponge cake covered with meringue, baked, and often set alight) from the forthcoming ~TRILLIUM CAFE’S~ menu. But after perusing this new Mendocino restaurant’s menu, it’s indicative of the kind of classic-meets-modern dishes that are emblematic of chef Jeremy Baumgartner’s sensibility.
To wit: This Baked Alaska is an olive oil cake with kumquat meringue and mint ice cream ($9). And as long as we’re thinking dessert first, how about bourbon cream beignets with maple glaze and candied bacon, or a butterscotch pie with caramel and Chantilly cream. At least you’ve been warned to save room.
“We know this is an often overlooked area…We feel strongly that diners who are paying for a Wine Country-caliber meal…in a stunning location deserve not only outstanding food and drink, but…caring service as well,” said restaurant owner Sandra McElroy. Other tempting menu items: spring pea arancini ($12), Dungeness crab strudel with capers and nasturtium ($15), rabbit meatballs and tortelloni with sunchokes ($22), and pork loin and belly with heirloom beans ($26). Also available are several vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free items. The restaurant opens officially on Saturday March 15th for lunch and dinner. And of course, dessert. 10390 Kasten Street, Mendocino, California.
By 707 correspondent Heather Irwin and top two photo credits Heather Irwin.
Sometimes you just need to get out of town, and look at that, we have Wine Country right in our backyard with Napa Valley not that far from San Francisco. Winter and early spring are an ideal time to visit: there are fewer crowds and better room rates, and it’s easier to make reservations. So let’s hit the road.
When exactly was the last time you stayed in downtown Napa? Exactly. Things are a-changin’. Check in to the ~ANDAZ NAPA~, which has an ideal central location, and while it’s a bit on the larger side, the hotel is aiming for boutique style. Go for one of the loft or terrace rooms if the price is right, and ask for a room that faces the back, not First Street (it’ll be quieter). Plan on getting some sleep, because the beds are a pillowy dream. When warm summer temperatures are back, the terrace (complete with fire pits!) will be open for drinks and hanging out.
Book a reservation for dinner at the recently opened ~TORC~ in the former Ubuntu. The handsome, spacious dining room contains 90 seats, with 17 at the bar. I recommend you start with a glass of the Charles de Cazanove Champagne ($16); the Euro-centric wine list is gonna make you thirsty.
Wild boar bolognese with housemade bucatini at Torc.
The interior of Torc (at the end of the evening).
Arancini and Ca’ Momi Rosa Frizzante.
Chef-owner Sean O’Toole (Quince, Cotogna, Bardessono) is one hell of a cook: his menu spans both the inventive and the traditional, ranging from Bengali sweet potato pakoras ($5) with yogurt-truffle dip to an elegant violet artichoke soup ($10). He is definitely rocking an international pantry. The Asian-inspired free-range chicken for two ($41) is a standout (it’s made with a vibrant farce of brioche, cardamom, cumin, clove, Tellicherry, star anise, cubeb pepper, allspice, pork fat, and butter), and it comes with creamy coconut rice. There are also some housemade pastas ($14-$19) you should strongly consider (remember, he has that Quince pedigree). One night we had the wild boar bolognese with bucatini—it was like an Italian molé, with cocoa and orange, and a hit of lime.
Dessert is truly a must. The pastry chef, Elizabeth Gentry, is so very talented; try the citrus-praline tart with lemon curd, caramelized hazelnut sablé, and smoked praline ganache (plus kumquat salt!), while chocolate lovers should get the Manjari chocolate bombe, rich with jasmine (both $9).
If you desire a nightcap, you can head to ~MORIMOTO~ for what is usually a lively scene in the lounge and bar, or enjoy a digestivo or grappa (my pick!) at the small bar inside ~OENOTRI~, conveniently within stumbling distance of the Andaz.
Rigatoni con coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) at Ca’ Momi.
The next day, if you’re a biscuit lover, you’ll want to hit up the popular ~NAPA VALLEY BISCUITS~, a Southern diner serving biscuit-y breakfasts that will hold you until dinner (and help soak up any extended wine tastings later in the day). There’s also fried chicken and waffles, or you can go for the Yardbird: fried chicken, bacon, and gravy sandwiched inside a biscuit. Uh-huh.
Another option is to visit the ~OXBOW PUBLIC MARKET~. Start the day at the Ritual Coffee stand, and then take a seat at ~CA’ MOMI~, an enoteca featuring dishes from all over Italy (owners Dario De Conti, Valentina Guolo-Migotto, and Stefano Migotto take the authenticity of their dishes very seriously).
Order the Ca’ Momi Ca’ Rosa Frizzante to go with the flatbread with lardo di Colonnata, a rare treat. In fact, they’ll do all kinds of great wine pairings here, or you can go for a Venetian spritz or an Italian beer (like Baladin!). Piadine (Rimini-style flatbread sandwiches) also rule, especially the Giorgio ($12) with radicchio, prosciutto cotto, and creamy stracchino cheese filling.
Ca’ Momi’s blazing pizza oven cranks out about 20 kinds of pizza, from a classic (and VPN-certified) margherita ($16) to the Momi, with porchetta, taleggio, and caramelized onion ($17). If the carbonara with egg and pancetta isn’t a perfect brunch pizza, I don’t know what is. Plus there are nine kinds of vegetarian pies for those on a healthier tip. All ingredients are organic, and some even come from Ca’ Momi’s own garden for the restaurant.
If you’re in a lunchy mood, the pastas rock, like a northern Italian dish of spatzle allo speck with cream ($16), or the Roman rigatoni ($22) con coda alla vaccinara (with oxtail, pine nuts, and soffritto). Who can say no to gnudi ($16)? I usually can’t. For dessert, get the bigné—cream puffs with a variety of fillings.
~THE THOMAS AT FAGIANI’S~ has a tasty, casual brunch—think corn pancakes, good egg dishes, and a quality Bloody Mary—and if the weather is nice, the rooftop terrace is where you want to be. When tomato season is back, the BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato sandwich) is tops.
From there? Check out wine tasting rooms like Vintner’s Collective, 1313 Main, and Carpe Diem. The Culinary Institute of America is offering new Napa wine education classes at the CIA Wine Studies Annex in the former Copia, listed here. Oh yeah, and there are always the Napa Premium Outlets if you’re in a shopping frame of mind. (Dangerous after wine tasting, btw.)
A version of this piece previously ran in my Tablehopping column in the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
Last October, after I finished a week with my father in Rome and visiting family in Calabria, we drove north together in our trusty Meriva.
We were heading to our ultimately separate destinations: he was off toward Padova to visit his friend, Lucio Gomiero of Vignalta, while I was going to be staying for a few nights in Chianti.
Earlier in the year, I was invited by the owners of Il Paluffo to come experience their stunning 15th-century property, and an abridged version of their specialized weeklong program for guests, Toscana Taste and Beauty.
In all my travels around Italy for the past 25 years, I had never visited Chianti, so the invitation was especially compelling for this sangiovese and finocchiona lover.
The Paluffo property is located in a downright dreamy area—full of vineyards and olive groves—in Chianti Colli Fiorentini, in between the tiny villages of Fiano and Lucardo.
The property is truly breathtaking: it includes a medieval tower house, a manor house with gorgeous frescoes from the 17th and 18th centuries (which is where you’ll find four bedrooms that you can stay in), an ancient olive mill, and I loved the creaking doors, terra-cotta floors, vintage key locks, and stone walls—the place has such presence. There are also four apartments you can stay in, good for four to six guests.
The main house and courtyard at Il Paluffo.
The bio pool at Il Paluffo
A welcoming spread of prosciutto, guanciale, olives.
My dream bedroom in the main house.
View from my bedroom.
Aging pecorino at Corzano + Paterno.
Thought bubble: “Can I have some milk, please?” (At Poggio Antico.)
Prosciutto at Macelleria Parti.
The irrepressible Stefano at Osteria dell’Ignorante.
Coccoli (fried dough) con prosciutto crudo and stracchino at Osteria dell’Ignorante.
Porcini crespelle at L’Osteria di Casa Chianti.
The grounds at Paneretta.
Frescoes at Paneretta.
A vineyard view at Castello Monsanto (with Tico, of course).
The grounds at Castello Monsanto (and Tico!).
Wilma the wonder woman leading a pasta class for Toscana Taste and Beauty.
The owners, Liana Stiavelli (whose ancestors owned the property in the 18th century) and her husband, Luca Del Bo, finished painstakingly restoring the Paluffo property in 2010, and I respect the eco-conscious approach they took. They use renewable energy, like solar panels, and rainwater is collected for irrigation.
The bio pool is so unique—it’s a swimming pool filled with natural water instead of chlorinated water, and the surrounding plants filter the water. It’s like an extremely clean pond, and it killed me that I couldn’t hop in—it was the beginning of fall and the stormy weather was just too chilly.
They also have their own beehives on the property, and one rainy afternoon, I was escorted to the hives to visit the bees (and pilfer a bit of honeycomb that we enjoyed later that evening for dessert).
You’ll meet their charming black cat, Ombra (“shadow”), who fittingly slinks around the property, and if you don’t pay attention, you may accidentally discover him like I did when I leaned back into the pillows one evening on the communal couch—he was asleep in between the pillows. We both jumped. And then he hopped into my lap. Meow.
After the long drive north from Calabria (and of course getting lost, Google maps is not infallible), my father and I were tired and hungry (and someone was a little cranky too).
Liana and Luca had a gorgeous spread waiting for us with different kinds of local prosciutto and guanciale, finocchiona (I was blown away with the one they served), green and black olives, a caper spread, pizza from a local pizzamaker, young and aged pecorino, two kinds of marmalade, honey from the property’s beehives, and some wonderful wines (Liana is studying for a sommelier exam, so she can also make some good recommendations on wineries to visit in the area). Now that’s what I call a taste of Toscana.
It was quite the once-in-a-lifetime experience to sleep in my beautiful room, full of antique furnishings, captivating frescoes on every surface (I seriously felt like a contessa in the 1700s), and then to get woken up in the middle of the night with a dramatic lightning show and the loudest thunder just overhead. Crack BOOM! Nothing like a good lightning show in Italy, I swear.
I so enjoyed my view overlooking the courtyard, watching it change with the weather each day, with the fresh air coming through my windows. My bathroom was a few doors down the hall, but I didn’t mind—the massive marble sink basin and shower made me make a mental note for my future dream bathroom (I loved the balance of the modern and the ancient in the décor).
The next morning, after a breakfast of farm-fresh eggs with a chunk of bread (which I drizzled with the spicy Paluffo olive oil, of course), we got my dad off to the train to Padova (ciao Papa!), and then Liana brought me to Corzano + Paterno, a farm and agriturismo known for their Sardinian sheep’s milk cheeses, olive oil, and wine. You don’t find a lot of sheep in the area, so their offering is very unique.
Any guest of the Toscana Taste and Beauty program benefits from a customized experience; when Liana and Luca learned how much I adore cheese and salumi, they made arrangements to take me to truly artisanal places in the area. We had an appointment with the talented cheesemaker, Antonia Ballarin (known as Toni), who walked us through her cheesemaking process.
She does a lot of experimentation, like grappa washes on the cheese, and she told me they use lardo to fill the holes on their Tegola cheese (cool), and one of their well-known pecorino cheeses, Buccia di Rospo (“frog skin”) came about because of a mistake (we love those).
They have quite a range of cheeses, from the creamy Marzolino to a truffled pecorino to the ashy Rocco, made like a goat’s cheese. Their aged (stagionato) pecorino was truly special (and gets spoken for and snapped up by the best restaurants and residents).
It ends up their ricotta is pretty famous in the area, with people coming by around 2:30pm to have it warm and fresh (again, there’s some competition for it). There’s a tasting room where you can enjoy their wine and stellar cheeses, but meeting the vivacious Toni is what made the visit so memorable.
Next stop: the very under-the-radar Poggio Antico. This biodynamic farm raises cows and goats—the owners came from the Veneto about 30 years ago and wanted a change of life. They learned how to make cheese, and now only make raw milk cheeses with a vegetable rennet (based on its name being “Cynara cardunculus,” it’s in the thistle family: a cardoon).
The list of cheeses they produce is extensive, like a goat taleggio, their cow’s milk poggese (which is shaped like Asiago), their caprino fresco, which they learned to make from a Siena native. And then you have this unusual find: mozzarella in Tuscany! Unpasteurized mozzarella, I gotta tell you, it’s the stuff—it was so creamy that it looked like ice cream on my lunch plate later. Even their yogurt was transcendent. There are also a variety of pastas they make from ancient grains—you can pick up some locally made pici to bring home.
A highlight for me was our visit to Macelleria Parti in San Donato in Poggio, a medieval (and walled) city. The second generation is now in charge of this meat shop (founded in 1970). The son, Emiliano, took over in 1989, and he has been making salumi all his life. Literally: there are pictures of him as a young boy in a white coat cutting lardo, I kid you not.
We had a quick appointment for a behind-the-scenes tour of the back room and their production. It was a great opportunity for me to learn more about one of my very favorite salumi, finocchiona, and he let me taste the very tiny but pungent wild fennel seeds they use, crucial. I also learned a funny thing about the name: he said back in the day you would give someone fennel before drinking wine to help hide any wine defects—the term eventually was used to mean “to fool someone” (“infinocchiare”). Gotta love a good etymology lesson while you’re tasting salumi.
The heady smell of their curing room was just beyond, meaty and funky, and I got to taste their famous salame toscano, and an ancient one called bastardo/”mezzone” (it has a little bit of beef mixed in, about 8 percent!), and learned more about their epic lonzino, which is salted, washed, and covered with garlic, black pepper, peperoncino, and nutmeg—you can bet I brought home a big chunk of that one in my bag (had to keep the finocchiona company, you know). The salumi they make here have so much flavor—everything was really juicy and masterfully seasoned. I would drive miles just to be able to go back there again and buy up the entire case—you think I’m kidding?
We had a couple of dinners out that were on different sides of the spectrum, but both were very cozy and comfortable osterie. One rainy night we dined at Osteria dell’Ignorante in Lucardo, and I knew I was going to love the cheeky owner (Stefano Giuliacci) based on the sign on the front door telling people they only serve Tuscan food, so don’t ask for lasagna Bolognese or pasta with pesto. Amen! Priceless. (Be sure to get one of their business cards as well, you won’t be disappointed.)
It was a hearty and rustic meal, one that felt home-cooked and very personal. Totally a Tuscan meal, it tasted of place. Dishes would come out when they were ready, and the vibe was relaxed. Stefano is quite the host. He stuffed us with frittelle di baccalà (salt cod fritters), coccoli (fried dough) con prosciutto crudo and stracchino (one of my favorite fresh cheeses of all time), and we had an unusual pasta of strigoli with a sweeter sauce of figs with prosciutto. And then there’s the kicker: we had donkey with polenta. It was unexpectedly so very good—the tender meat reminded me of brisket, but sweeter. It’s the kind of place where you laugh, drink too much wine, and go home happy with a full belly. Of donkey.
The owner of L’Osteria di Casa Chianti in Fiano offered a different kind of hospitality—less jovial but so very thoughtful and detailed. Our meal had a touch more refinement, with dishes like quail eggs with shavings of the first white truffles, and a carpaccio of lonzino (I love the spice of this salume), with thin slices of porcini, arugula, lettuce, grana, and olive oil. Not a looker, but what a magic combination of flavors. The gnocchi with blue pecorino cheese and fresh figs were ethereal (again, fresh figs in pasta, huh!); the porcini crespelle were a bubbly and cheesy splurge; and of course I had to try their pici in a ragu made with Cinta Senese pork (it’s an ancient breed of Tuscan pig, famous for its white belt).
The owner had the kitchen prepare a tasting menu for us, something I highly recommend so you can taste more dishes. All night, the wine pairings were spot-on, all the way to a beautiful finish of vin santo gelato with crumbled cantuccini mixed in. I was smitten with everything about this place, well, except the high-watt lightbulbs that seared the back of my retina (Italy, what is UP with your bright lights?). And if you’re looking for bistecca alla fiorentina, based on all the steaks I saw on tables, this is a good place to do it—there is quite the grill in the kitchen.
Both osterie were proud to feature pasta made by Wilma of Pasta Fresca (in Tavarnelle Val di Pesa). It ends up she is a very famous local pasta maker who supplies a lot of restaurants around town, and was the very one who was going to teach us how to make pasta one night at Paluffo. It was an inspiring class: we learned so many different types we could actually make (she made it look so easy), and she made sure we all took turns kneading the dough, rolling it, and running it through the pasta machine.
I was so taken with her adorable combination of Italian and English all night—she reminded me of my Aunt Terry, who never quite spoke one or the other after living in the U.S. after 30 years. Wilma is a one-woman army, and showed us how to make garganelli, ravioli, farfalle, tortellini, little stuffed “pochettes,” and pasta alla chitarra, among other shapes. Of course at the end our class of seven got to enjoy the fruits of our labor, along with some local wines. Cin cin! (There are other cooking classes available through Toscana Taste and Beauty as well.)
Speaking of wines, it wouldn’t be a trip to Chianti without visiting a couple of wineries, hello. One winery we visited was Paneretta, which has a 400-year-old castle that will definitely take your breath away. The frescoes by Bernardino Poccetti—dating back to the late 1500s—are something to behold. It’s a traditional winery, all estate grown, that only uses local and handpicked grapes (sangiovese and they are very proud of their use of canaiolo), with winemaking records going back to 1596. We tasted four of their wines (the 2009 Chianti Classico Riserva was a favorite, full of cherry, aged for two years in their ancient casks and in barrique, and then blended).
Another winery we visited was Castello Monsanto (don’t let the name deter you, no relation), where we got to tour the vineyards with the vibrant Laura Bianchi and her two adorable dogs, Tico, a little white fluff who never stopped bouncing around her, and Nina the German shepherd.
Her father’s first vintage at Castello Monsanto was 1962, from the Il Poggio vineyard, and it was the first single vineyard bottled in Chianti Classico. Now Laura is overseeing the winery, working closely with winemaker Andrea Giovanni (previously at Ornellaia). The aging cellar is huge—we’re talking almost 1,000 feet long—and handmade with galestro stones. Laura said when it rains, the smell of the galestro stone matches the taste of graphite in the wine. It’s a huge estate, with olive groves, gardens, and an agriturismo as well.
We tasted some of their wines, starting with the 2011 Castello Monsanto chardonnay (30 percent fermented in oak; I loved the salinity in this wine), and I’m glad we got to try the 2009 Il Poggio (it’s only produced in the best vintages; 90 percent sangiovese, 10 percent canaiolo and colorino)—Laura said it will be drinking beautifully in 10 years. I need to see if I can rent out a little space in their cellar for my own stash. I also was coveting their collection of wines from my birth year of 1971, which I was told was one of the best vintages of the century, natch.
Of course there are a bunch of charming neighboring towns to visit, from Siena (just 40 minutes away) to the walled village of Certaldo (where Boccaccio was born) to the picturesque San Gimignano (don’t miss a visit to the Duomo, with frescoes from the 14th century—I especially liked the Old Testament stories).
When you visit a rural area to get away from the city and get your country mojo on, sure, it’s nice, but it can also be really challenging since you don’t know the area (hello, winding roads and no signs) or where to go. Fortunately, Liana and Luca (and Federica, their hospitality manager) have you covered, and they all speak very good English. And like most Italians, they are properly obsessed about the artisanal products available in the area, but they can also tell you where to eat in Florence, where to get the best panforte in San Gimignano, where to have lunch with a stunning view in Certaldo, or where the Prada outlet is.
But the greatest pleasure of all was hanging out at Il Paluffo. I can only imagine how delicious it would be to go for a walk around the property on a warm day, and then take a dip in their pool, sit in a chaise, take a nap, read a book, snack on some finocchiona, occasionally pausing to look out at that beautiful view. Truly paradiso.