If the era of flashy chef-lebrity restaurants are over, no one told Michael Chiarello. The Food Network personality who’s made his name hawking Napa’s faux-country lifestyle on television, in books and his Napa Style stores, continues to pack in visitors, celebs and locals at his sprawling Italian trattoria, Bottega, in Yountville.
And though myriad failed restaurants have made it easy to dismiss concepts like Bottega as overly-ambitious, personality-driven eateries, Chiarello has created a comfortable space with a reasonable (considering the location, please) price point — capturing in real-life the Wine Country joie de vivre he portrays on television.
Here’s the fork-11: Chiarello isn’t new to these parts, having cut his teeth as the driving force behind Tra Vigne’s ascendancy to greatness in the late 1980’s, helping to define Cal-Italian food. Since 2000 he’s focused on his television and retail career, along with producing wines near his St. Helena home. And while Chiarello’s presence is a bonus, don’t expect to seem him behind the burners much.
The kitchen has interpreted Chiarello classics with a menu of “micro-regional Italian cuisine”. Stuzzichini (appetizers) include house cured olives ($5), a pumpkin frittata ($7), house-cured salumi, and Veal Tartare ($11). A number of these can be ordered off the bar menu.
Save yourself, however, for the traditional first course, the Antipasta. Angry Hopper Shrimp ($13) with white bean puree, a spicy orange-chili oil and fried basil are a firecracker of a starter. Polenta Under Glass ($12) is the most fun item on the menu: A small jar filled with buttery polenta, caramelized mushrooms, a crispy Parmesan wafer and warm balsamic sauce poured tableside.
On opening weekend, the kitchen punted with fresh mozzarella after the Burratta ran out, topping sliced artichokes, ($12).
Note: Ridiculously-rich does little justice to Bottega’s dishes, so if you’re watching your pennies you’ll be fine sharing an appetizer or first course. Portion sizes are fairly small all the way around, but BiteClub ended up with several to-go boxes (a rarity) for Monday-morning indulgences.
Hearty pasta dishes are a Chiarello signature, especially welcome as the weather turns cool. Best bet is the Garganelli with Balsamic Rabbit Sugo (sauce) and chanterelle mushrooms ($19). The portion size is small, but filling. Other pastas include veal tortelli in browned butter, pumpkin and fontina risotto with “game bird” ragu ($18) and ricotta gnocchi with salsa pomodoro.
Secondi are meatier entrees ranging from a two-person grilled porterhouse steak ($36 per person), seared day-boat scallops, grilled swordfish with ancient grain polenta ($24) and goats milk braised lamb shank with garlic, fennel, onions and mushrooms ($24). The only disappointment of the night was the Arrosto of Duroc Pork that was bone dry ($23).
Both dessert and wine are done with pomp and flourish that make them well worth the extra investment. Best bet is the Chocolate-Almond Molten Chocolate Cake ($9) cooked to order and unwrapped from its parchment table side. Though its one of the most overdone desserts in modern history, the addition of hazelnut creme anglaise over the top redeems.
Feeling a bit bloated after three courses of butter and goodness? Bottega’s Whole Citrus Napoleon is a refreshing dip of lemon and blood orange curds atop a buttery crust with a perfectly sectioned citrus salad ($8)
The wine list is what really surprises, especially in tony Yountville where $400+ bottles grace most lists and anything under $40 is as rare as a natural blonde. Bottega’s lengthy list includes a pretty beefy selection of approachable sips, though you can be hard pressed to find diners in Napa who don’t bring their own trophy bottles. In fact, a chef-coat-clad Chiarello stopped to stick his nose into a decanter of Chateauneuf du Pape opened at the table next to mine. Which was next to a bottle of Caymus on the other side. Um, yeah.
However, the wine steward opened our $30 wine with exactly the same respect he opened the Chateauneuf du Pape with (though BiteClub was secretly cringing).
Here’s the long-and-short of it. While Mr. and Mrs. Cheateauneuf du Pape were trying desperately to find a dish that would match the majesty of their wine, McNibs and I were just enjoying the food. Every single bite, all over the map without regard to calories, perfect pairings or even dribbling a little pomodoro on our shirts. We sopped up our sauces with bread and shared bites with abandon. We gulped down our wine without philosophizing about it.
That’s what makes Bottega work. It’s the kind of spot where Papes and cheap pinots, celebrities and nobodies can rub elbows as equals. And where the food is the real star.
Bottega, 6525 Washington St., Yountville, 707.945.1050. Reservations strongly recommended. Dress is upscale casual.
Final bill: $145 (before tip) including a bottle of wine, a glass of Prosecco, three appetizers, two entrees and two desserts.