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Cox: In Napa, it's 'The Place'


The city of Napa's Il Posto — "the place" in Italian — will fly under the radar for most of the Valley's tourist trade. But it's just the place for local folks — that's you and me — to enjoy handcrafted Italian food in a clean, well-lighted place.

On a recent night, one large table was filled with a gaggle of 9- and 10-year-olds and their supervising adults. Nearby was a large family with grandparents, parents, young adults, and babes in arms. At another, a married couple held hands across their antipasti, and an elderly couple eased themselves into their chairs by the window. This is a good sign, because a restaurant that can appeal to people of all ages prioritizes pleasure and unpretentious comfort.

Our party really didn't know what to expect from Il Posto, although there was some good buzz about the place on the grapevine. The good buzz turned out to be accurate. It's a surprisingly serious Italian restaurant.

For example, let's get right to the best things on the menu — the desserts. I know a guy whose motto is "Eat dessert first." He'd love this place. Strawberry Panna Cotta ($8, 3-1/2 stars) couldn't have tasted better, although typically this dessert is turned out of its ramekin onto a plate and you can enjoy its jiggle and shimmer. Il Posto's came still in its glassware. Pureed strawberries had been whipped into the custard and set in the glass with strawberry syrup. Little rhubarb dice were sprinkled over the top and it was accompanied by slivered marcona almonds.

Cannoli ($5, 4 stars) is an iconic Italian dessert, and this one is perfect. Too often, the cylinders of pastry that make up the cannoli are too thick and hard. If they're too thin, the wet filling can make them soggy.

These sweet, crunchy, lacy, frico-like gems are just right — easy to eat in all senses of the phrase. The filling is a lightly whipped Meyer lemon ricotta studded with chopped pistachios. Both desserts were exceptional.

The place features an open kitchen where you can see chef Josh Wheeler and crew at work. Wheeler, who's 29, is at his first full-time chef's job. Wheeler may not be an Italian name, but he's got Italy in his soul.

If you want to start dinner with a cocktail, you can choose among seven vodka or tequila mixes, each $9. The Italian Paloma, for instance, brings together tequila, lemon and lime juices, Sprite and a sprig of basil, served on the rocks.

The wine list befits the food, with lots of local whites and reds, plus a good selection of Italian barbaresco, brunello, barolo, primitivo and chianti. Corkage is $12, waived on Wednesdays and waived for one bottle on other nights if you also buy a bottle.

Daily specials often include lasagna, veal osso buco and cioppino, to hit a few of the ever-changing highlights.

Dinner started with an unusual Bruschetta ($8, 3 stars). Three toasted slices of Italian bread were smeared with creamy ricotta and studded with fresh peas and fava beans out of their jackets. A salty snap was given by flash-fried prosciutto laid on the veggies. Another innovative appetizer was Olive Fritti ($7, 2 stars) — green castelvetrano olives stuffed with house-made Italian sausage, battered and deep fried.

We chose Salsiccia Pizza ($16, 2-1/2 stars) from the four pizza selections. The crust, glistening with olive oil, had been given enough rising time to become puffy, but not thick. A light smear of tomato sauce, parmigiano and caciocavallo cheeses, and house-made sausage made one luscious pie.

All the pastas are made in-house. From eight selections, we chose Papa Sauce ($14, 3 stars), which closely resembled sauce Bolognese, over tagliatelle noodles. The mixed meat sauce, cooked long and slow, had a secret ingredient, according to the menu. I asked the waiter about it.

"If I told you the secret, we'd have to kill you," he said.

My guess is the secret ingredient is cinnamon. So come and get me. The dish was wonderful.

Chicken Marsala ($22, 3 stars) was a skin-on, boneless breast with bone-in drumette attached), pan-roasted, served on creamy polenta with a maitake mushroom and marsala wine sauce. Superb!

To sum up: Il Posto pays attention to the details of its Italian food and the results make for pure pleasure on the plate.

(Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.)