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Posts Tagged ‘malfatti’

I love Napa. I was lucky to grow up there. Even though I don’t live there anymore, it’s still home. I visit friends and family there when I can to get my “Napa Fix.” So much has changed over the last few decades, yet it feels exactly the same to me whenever I go back. Once I drive into Napa and see the mustard growing in the vineyards, I know I’m home.

When I was a kid, all the tourists passed by the actual city of Napa and headed up valley to the wineries. They missed out on a lot of cool stuff. Now they flock to Downtown Napa, with all of its new restaurants, wine bars, boutiques, hotels and a bustling riverfront. But there are so many other beautiful places in Napa. Just drive away from Downtown in any direction and you’ll see.

I can’t wait to go back. Besides, I’m overdue for some malfatti. Which brings me to my Top Ten List.

Top Ten Ways You Know You’re a True Napan:

10.  You snuck into Kay-Von Drive-In in somebody’s car trunk. Or you snuck in under the fence. Or you simply paid to get in by cramming as many people in the car as you could.

9.  You call the country club the Country Club. (I don’t know what the “Silverado Resort and Spa” is … )

8.  You have your own personal Rebob story. It probably involves either one of your friends trying to scare the crap out of you, or you trying to scare the crap out of one of your friends.

7.  You cruised the “J” on Friday and Saturday nights, and waited all year for the big Cruise Night. And you found your friends somewhere along Jefferson without the help of cell phones.

6.  You went to the Big Game every year at Memorial Stadium, and your life depended on who would win.

5.  You headed to the Lake many summer weekends in an overcrowded car stuffed with friends, Doritos and beer, blasting AC/DC and Journey all the way. Or you went up with the family in your station wagon. And you saluted the Old Man With the Pipe on the way up.

4.  You walked Downtown on the weekends and met up with friends (usually at the Clock Tower — officially known as the Paul R. Gore Clock Tower. Paul was the Dad of a few of my high school friends). You probably grabbed something to eat at the Woolworth’s counter, or at The Fox & The Grapes, or at the deli next to Mervyn’s. You stopped in Partrick’s Candy (now Anette’s) to smell the chocolate. You browsed Brewster’s, Mervyn’s, Merrill’s and Carithers. Sometimes you’d see a movie at the Uptown, when they had intermission and cartoons, too. You hurried past the Connor Hotel, but slowed down at the deserted Fagiani’s long enough to peek through the front door window. If you dared.

  “Napa Clock Tower” by Will Murray (Willscrlt) is licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0-US

3.  You know the exact two spots in town to pick up malfatti. And you likely took a big pot to the back door of The Depot back in the day to pick some up from Clemente and his family.

2.  Depending on which generation you fit into, you either partied at the Tucker Bag and Rainbow Bridge or you hit Alfredo’s on Tuesdays for Nickel Beer Night. And you probably hit whatever incarnation the popular Downtown hotspot was at the time (either The Oberon, Main Street Bar & Grill, or Downtown Joe’s). Maybe you played volleyball at Tom Foolery. You probably even stopped in Henry’s … if you were in-the-know.

1.  You know the difference between a Napan and a Napkin. A napkin, by definition, is “a square piece of cloth or paper used at a meal to wipe the fingers or lips, and to protect garments.”  ‘Nuff said.

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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:

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And this is what it looks like two minutes after you start eating it:

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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:

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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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