Most of you probably aren’t familiar with malfatti. Malfatti is a completely scrumptious pasta dish, and as far as I know, it can only be found in two places: Italy and Napa. Malfatti are like spinach dumplings covered in delectable red gravy (or red sauce for you non-Italians). Malfatti is loosely translated as “mistake,” or “bad product” or “badly made,” but that can’t be further from the truth.
Malfatti apparently was introduced in Napa around 1930 when the owner of The Depot Restaurant, Theresa Tamburelli, had to feed a hungry baseball team. The only thing she had available was ravioli filling, so she made dumplings with it. God bless her. In 1961, Clemente Cittoni began working at The Depot with Teresa as a busboy and dishwasher. By the time I got to high school, Clemente was running the show at The Depot.
My stepdad introduced us to The Depot. When we walked into the lobby, it reminded me of an old Italian place in the city (San Francisco) where old dudes would go to relive their mobster days over a Chianti and a cigar. But once you walked into the dining area, it felt like someone’s home. This is where I first tasted malfatti. I was in love with Italian food then, especially ravioli, so I ordered a plate of ravioli and malfatti. I wasn’t too sure about the malfatti when my dinner arrived; they were shaped like little sausage links. But that didn’t stop me. I went ahead and tasted the malfatti. The seas parted. The heavens opened. Doves flew overhead. I think I even heard a symphony in the background. Malfatti was essentially Christ in a bowl. The taste, texture, flavor, smell … there’s nothing that compares. This is what it looks like:
And this is what it looks like two minutes after you start eating it:
Ever since that first day at The Depot, malfatti has held a special place in my heart. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’d go to The Depot to get malfatti to add to our holiday dinner. We’d take a big stockpot and go to the back door of the kitchen. There’d often be a line. When you made your way to the front of the line, you’d tell whichever staff member was near the back door what you wanted – how much malfatti and/or how much ravioli. Clemente and his family were always hard at work fulfilling lunch or dinner orders for the front house, and fulfilling malfatti and ravioli orders at the back door. I went to high school with Clemente’s son Steve, but didn’t realize back then it was his Dad who was in charge of creating those incredible malfatti. Clemente worked like a magician. As he plated dishes for the front of the house and yelled at the waitresses in his adorable Italian accent to “Pick Up!” he’d be slicing meats, boiling pasta and talking to a back door customer at the same time: “You want cheese with that sweetheart?” Every time Clemente, his wife and children were there working hard and greeting customers with kindness. Robert Irvine would be proud.
Some time ago, the Depot closed, and though I was already in Oregon, I was terribly sad … until I found out Clemente and his family opened a small kitchen at Val’s Liquors in downtown Napa. Every time I visit Napa, Val’s is a stop I always make. And if friends or family from Napa come to visit me in Oregon, they know they better not show up without some of Clemente’s malfatti.
The last time I was in Napa, I went to Val’s … of course. I usually order at least four dozen malfatti and when I get to my destination, I’ll eat about a dozen and then freeze the rest to take home to Oregon. This last time I was there, Jay and I picked up malfatti on our way to his brother Rich’s place in Santa Rosa. That’s about an hour drive from Napa. The malfatti was sitting on the floor board behind the driver’s seat. Jay was driving, so I was able to look adoringly at my precious malfatti every five minutes. It was difficult. I could smell that heavenly aroma. It was like crack. I had to have it. I couldn’t wait until we got to Santa Rosa. I asked Jay if there was a spoon in the car. He looked at me like I was a little crazy. I actually started rummaging through the glove compartment looking for a plastic spoon, a fork, a spork – I didn’t care. All I could find was a straw. That was good enough. I grabbed that container of malfatti, opened the lid and stabbed one of those malfatti with that straw. I shoved it in my mouth and then slurped the red gravy through the straw. I’m not kidding. If you’ve had malfatti before, you know I’m not kidding. Jay laughed out loud, he couldn’t believe it. That’s how good malfatti is kids.
Every time I visit Val’s, Clemente, his daughter Joanne and grandson Joseph are manning that kitchen. It’s still a family affair. And every customer they serve is like family … they call me “honey,”, “sweetheart”, “sweetie” and every other endearment you can think of. I took this picture of them the last time I was there:
That’s Clemente, Joseph and Joanne. I told Clemente I was the ex-Napan from Oregon who always visits him and told him one day I would blog about his famous malfatti. But I’m just one of a thousand customers who tells him how much I love him, his family and their malfatti. Still, each time I get that old thrill when he says, “You want cheese with that sweetheart?”
So do me a favor. Put this on your Bucket List: If you’re ever in Napa, go see Clemente and his family at Val’s Liquors on Third Street in downtown Napa. And order yourself a big helping of malfatti … with cheese sweetheart.
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