The relatively tiny hamlet of Yountville in Napa Valley (population roughly 3,000) is home to some truly spectacular restaurants, including one with the coveted three Michelin stars and another with one Michelin star. Among the remaining restaurants, there are several run by well-known celebrity chefs. The San Francisco Chronicle’s well-regarded food critic included 6 Yountville restaurants among the top 100 for the entire San Francisco Bay Area. One of those restaurants is Ciccio Napa Valley, literally the last establishment on the north end of Yountville, away from the relative bustle of the shops and restaurants in downtown.
Since moving to Napa, we have been trying to find a single place to call “our” restaurant. You know, the place you go when you’ve had a really long week, or you have friends from out-of-town and want to share a special meal with them. We had dinner at Ciccio this past Friday and finally decided that Ciccio will be “our” place. When we first visited Ciccio nearly three years ago, as guests of some friends that live in Yountville and truly are “regulars” there, the restaurant could have been considered a “hidden gem.” Today, though, word-of-mouth and inclusion in the Chronicle’s Top 100 list has made Ciccio a destination restaurant not only for those coming to Yountville, or even Napa Valley, but anywhere in the Bay Area.
If you’re planning a trip to Ciccio, know that they do not take reservations and that demand outpaces supply most nights, especially Friday through Sunday (they are closed Monday and Tuesday). Ciccio opens at 5 p.m. sharp, so the best way to ensure seating is to arrive at 4:45 and get in line. Yes, there is already a line when they open. That’s how good the place is. This past Friday we arrived at 4:50 and there were about 15 people ahead of us. All of us got seated, thankfully, but on other occasions we have seen the 5:00 rush completely fill up the available seats, which means that seating will not open up until at least 6:00 or 6:30. If you are too cool to show up for a restaurant at 5:00 (we understand!) or have too many wineries to visit, just show up later and be patient and ready to sit for a bit. Trust us, it’s worth the wait, and the team at Ciccio will make your time easier by pouring you a glass of wine or beer while you cool your heels.
Once inside, you’ll notice that there are three basic seating options – individual tables (2 or 4), booths, and one long communal table in the middle of the restaurant. The kitchen is open and sits at the back of the restaurant; you can see the chefs working and view the flames from the Italian oven. The decor is casual, decorated with kitschy art work including some throw-back Spaghetti Western posters and Italian cartoons. The space feels homey, a big reason for which is that Ciccio is a family-owned restaurant – Frank and Karen Altamura (owners also of Altamura Vineyards and Winery) own and operate Ciccio along with their two sons, Frank Jr. and Giancarlo. Emphasis on own and operate. You’ll find Frank Altamura at the restaurant almost every night and often Giancarlo Altamura will be bartending.
If you are looking for a Cheesecake Factor-sized menu ….eat somewhere else. And if you want to order chain restaurant Italian food … eat somewhere else. That isn’t to say you won’t find spaghetti on there on occasion – the menu this past Friday featured Scampi Spaghetti. It’s just that the chef, Polly Lappetito, is a wizard in the kitchen and conjures up very high-quality vegetable, meat, and fish dishes. We don’t have a nonna (Italian grandmother), but if we did have one, we like to think that our nonna would make the kind of food that Chef Polly makes at Ciccio. Chef Polly came to Ciccio from the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley and brings such an inventive flair to her cooking with the use of simple ingredients, many of them sourced from the Altamura’s vineyard property in nearby Wooden Valley. The Ciccio menu fits all on one side of a single card and generally the smaller plates and entrees together (including pizzas) number less than 20 items.
This past Friday night, the menu (above) had some old favorites but also some new items that we expect will become classics (and new old favorites). Because we are avoiding carbs lately, we skipped the crispy calamari, but cannot recommend them strongly enough for those of you that are more welcoming of carbs. We ordered (and shared) the chopped salad, the green grape gazpacho (yes, gazpacho made from less-than-ripe green grapes – wonderful!), sweet summer corn and chanterelles, and the italian frying peppers.
After consuming all of these dishes, we were stuffed and could easily have stopped eating. And maybe we should have. But one menu item in particular was calling our names: the porchetta with fennel salad. What is porchetta, you ask? It is made from suckling pig; the pig is gutted, de-boned, and then stuffed with garlic and herbs and seasoning and roasted in the oven. It may actually be better than bacon. Really.
After consuming the porchetta, which came in a large portion as you can see from the picture at the beginning of this article, we definitely should have stopped. But the Ciccio cake was also beckoning and we had to order it to keep our coffee and after-dinner drinks company.
We would be remiss if we failed to mention the wonderful wines that we had with dinner. Ciccio does not have an extensive wine menu, but the benefit of being owned by the Almatmura’s is that the menu is replete with Altamura wines (there are also a few non-Altamura wines on the menu from wineries that are favorites of theirs). We enjoyed the Altamura Nebbiolo, and on other occasions have ordered their Sangiovese and Negroamaro. The wines are as good as the food, and, unlike most restaurants, they are offered at retail price rather than the typical 2-times or 3-times markup.
If you are still in the mood for an adult beverage after dinner, Ciccio has an impressive offering of after-dinner drinks, including a large selection of the Italian herbal liqueur Amaro, which supposedly helps with digestion. After the porchetta and cake, I ordered two Amaro’s just to be on the safe side. I think it helped.
We don’t believe you can find a restaurant with so much good food and wine and so little pretense. From Kate at the front of the house to the wait staff and into the kitchen, everyone is friendly and focused on creating a great experience. The service is responsive and everyone pitches in and serves every table. We have never heard “I’ll let your server know you have a question.” We are sure they have assigned tables, but everyone helps everyone and that adds to the whole experience.
John & Irene
July 5, 2016
Visit Ciccio’s website: http://www.ciccionapavalley.com/
S.F. Chronicle excerpt from Top 100 List: http://www.sfchronicle.com/food/top-100-2015/article/Ciccio-6206814.php