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Chef Kolin Vazzoler honed his culinary skills at some of the North Bay's most elegant, white-tablecloth restaurants, including Gary Danko in San Francisco and Shimo in Healdsburg.

But when the 42-year-old chef was growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, he learned to cook simple fare at the knee of his mother and his Italian aunt, who tended a garden overflowing with vegetables.

So when Vazzoli was hired this year as the new executive chef at Simi Winery of Healdsburg, it was a homecoming of sorts.

"My father came over from Italy, the same as the two Simi brothers who started the winery," Vazzoler said. "And I'm second-generation Italian, just as winery matriach Isabelle Simi was."

Vazzoler started drinking wine with dinner when he was 10, but it wasn't anything fancy. His grandfather made the wine himself in his own cellar.

"We were a food family," Vazzoler said. "We always sat down to dinner with the family, and we conversed with each other. That's where the wine and food came in."

Vazzoler brings together the high-end and the homey, the refined and the rustic, in his first job as a winery chef.

For winery clients and distributors, he puts together private meals worthy of a four-star restaurant and pairs them with Simi's wines. The job requires him to put the wine first.

"At the restaurant, it was about &‘What am I going to create for the food,' and the sommelier paired it with the wine," he said. "At the winery, I taste the wine and go from there."

As an appetizer, he cures his own Casaveltrano olives and marinates them in garlic and orange zest, and he makes his own mozzarella and ricotta cheeses for pizzas.

"We try to make everything in-house that we can," he said.

The public can taste Vazzoler's rustic Italian cuisine on Fridays and Saturdays, when the winery offers a casual, pizza-and-salad menu for folks who just want to stop by for a bite to eat.

"It's just simple fare," Vazzoler said. "Just come in, get some wood-fired oven pizza and have a glass of wine."

On Fridays, you can order a salad and four or five different pizzas from noon to 6 p.m., either for take-out or to enjoy on the patio by the tasting room.

On Saturdays, the winery invites guests to dine at the Landslide Terrace from noon to 4 p.m., where they can watch the pizzas as they emerge from the Forno Bravo wood-fired oven.

Currently on the menu is a Tricolore Salad with Parmigiano Reggiano and Boquerones (marinated anchovies), topped with a tart, lemony dressing.

The salads pair well with the winery's sauvignon blanc, as do the light pizzas, such as the classic Margarita made with San Marzano tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.

The Parma pizza, made with prosciutto, ricotta, arugula and roasted peppers on a bed of roasted garlic, provides an earthy foil for a light red wine, such as the pinot noir.

If pizza isn't comforting enough for you, Vazzoler also serves up his tasty Tuscano Meatballs as an appetizer during the weekend pizza events. The recipe came from his grandmother, who hails from the north of Italy, but he tweaked it slightly to reflect the heritage of the Simi family.

"The Simi family is Toscano, so I went with chiles and fennel seed," he said. "They are more heat-oriented than the north."

The moist meatballs boast a rich flavor and a light texture thanks to the day-old bread that the chef adds to the grinder with the beef, pork, prosciutto and back fat.

For the past two months, Vazzoler has been serving his Tuscano Meatballs on the Simi Winery Truck as it bounced around the West promoting wines on tap.

"I've never worked on a food truck before, but it was a great challenge," he said. "I had to think in the street-food vein, but put the fine-food touches on it."

From the truck, the chef also served up a Citrus-Cured Salmon with Avocado and Coconut Granit?to pair with the winery's crisp sauvignon blanc.

"The citrus is the acidic component that combines really well with the sauvignon blanc," he said. "As long as that acidity is there, the Asian flavors go well."

The Simi truck made stops at the Vegas Uncork'd festival, the Doheny Jazz Festival in Newport Beach and the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, among other destinations.

The journey ended at the winery itself, where Vazzoler served up tasty bites in June as part of the winery's "Keep on Truckin'" Wednesdays. On the second and fourth Wednesday of the month through September, the winery hosts a handful of food trucks alongside the Landslide Terrace.

Now that the food truck has come to the end of the road, Vazzoler is enjoying cooking out of the Simi Winery gardens, just like his Italian family back home.

"It's more economical to cook out of the garden," he said. "It's utilizing what you have around you."

The following recipes are from Simi Winery executive chef Kolin Vazzoler.

Watermelon Salad with Feta, Marcona Almonds and Balsamic reduction

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 cup balsamic vinegar

1 small ripe watermelon, peeled and cut into 1-inchcubes

8 ounces feta cheese, cubed or crumbled

? cup marcona almonds

8 mint leaves, ripped into small pieces

? to 1t ablespoon fleur de sel, to taste

2 breakfast radishes, sliced thin and soak in ice water and drained

2 cups arugula

— Extra virgin olive oil, to taste

To make reduced balsamic vinegar: In a small pot, put in balsamic vinegar and bring to a slow simmer and reduce till ? cup left. Remove from heat and cool.

For salad: In a large bowl combine the watermelon, feta cheese, marcona almonds, mint, breakfast radishes and arugula. Toss to incorporate. Place into a serving bowl and drizzle with olive oil and then reduced balsamic vinegar. Season the salad with salt to taste.

Vazzoler would pair this wine with the Simi Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Tuscano Meatballs

Serves 15 as appetizer

10 ounces boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes and finely chopped in a food processor

10 ounces beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes and finely chopped in a food processor

6 ounces day-old country bread, torn into chunks, chilled in the freezer for 15 minutes, and then finely chopped in a food processor

2 ounces pork fat, cut into 1-inch cubes and chilled in the freezer for 15 minutes and then finely chopped in a food processor

2 ounces prosciutto, cut into 1-inch cubes and chilled in the freezer for 15 minutes and then finely chopped in a food processor

1 cup loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons dried oregano

1? teaspoons fennel seeds

1 teaspoon dried chile flakes

2/3 cup fresh ricotta, drained

3 eggs, lightly beaten

? cup whole milk

1 (28-ounce) can San Marzano tomatoes with juices

— Handful of fresh basil leaves

— Block of Grana Padano for grating

— Cracked black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat two rimmed baking sheets with olive oil.

In a large bowl, combine the pork, beef, bread, pork fat, prosciutto, parsley, 1 tablespoon of the salt, oregano, fennel seeds, and chile flakes and mix with your hands just until all of the ingredients are evenly distributed. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the ricotta, eggs, and milk just enough to break up any large curds of ricotta. Add the ricotta mixture to the ground meat mixture and mix lightly with your hands just until incorporated. The mixture should feel wet and tacky. Pinch off a small nugget of the mixture, flatten into a disk, and cook it in a small saut?pan. Taste it and adjust the seasoning of the mixture with salt if needed. Form the mixture into 1?-inch balls each weighing about 2 ounces, and place on the prepared baking sheets. You should have about 30 meatballs.

Bake, rotating the sheets once from front to back, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are browned. Remove from the oven and lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

Sprinkle the tomatoes with the remaining 2 teaspoons salt, and then pass the tomatoes and their juices through a food mill fitted with the medium plate. Alternatively, put the entire can of tomatoes in a large bowl, don an apron, and then squeeze the tomatoes into small pieces with your hands.

Pack the meatballs into 1 large roasting pan or 2 smaller roasting pans. Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and braise for 1 to 1? hours, or until the meatballs are tender and have absorbed some of the tomato sauce.

Pull the pans out of the oven and uncover. Distribute the basil leaves throughout the sauce.

Grate Grana Padano cheese and a little cracked black pepper over the top.

Vazzoler makes his own pancetta, but you can purchase it from a local butcher or meat purveyor. At Simi, pizzaioli Rob Murphy uses an all-natural yeast and does a 72-hour fermentation for the dough, but the recipe has been simplified for the home cook. Pair this pizza with a Simi Pinot Noir.

Pizza with Pancetta, Broccoli Rabe and Spring Onion

Makes 2 pizzas

For tomato sauce:

1 (28-ounce) can San Marzano whole tomatoes with juice

— Basil

— Salt

For pizza dough:

? teaspoon active dry yeast

1? cups warm water (100 to 105 degrees)

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons salt

4 cups "00" flour or all-purpose flour

— Extra virgin olive oil

For topping:

3 ounces pancetta, sliced and cut into 2-inch length

1? pieces sliced fior de latte mozzarella

1 bunch broccoli rabe, blanched and cut into 2-inch length

— Spring onions, blanched and chopped

4 ounces tomato sauce

For sauce: Mix ingredients and pass through a food mill.

For pizza dough: To make the dough, in a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and let proof for 10 minutes. If the yeast has not dissolved into a soft, frothy paste in that time, hunt down a fresher batch and repeat the process. Stir in the olive oil and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the flour and yeast mixture and mix together on low speed for about 2 minutes, or until the dough is shaggy and most of the water has been absorbed. Knead on medium-low speed for about 10 minutes, or until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and looks smoother. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and let rest for 5 minutes. Knead on medium-low speed for an additional 10 minutes, or until the dough is very smooth, soft, and warm to the touch. Lightly coat a large bowl with olive oil. Transfer the dough to the bowl, turn the dough so that both sides are lightly coated in oil, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, punch down the dough with your fist, then fold over the sides and turn the dough over in the bowl. Re-cover and return to the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and place it on a floured work surface. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. One at a time, cup the pieces in your hands and tuck under the sides until you have formed a smooth ball. Place the balls on the floured work surface, providing plenty of room between the balls, and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Let the balls proof for 1 ? to 2 hours, or until doubled in volume. Keep a water-filled spray bottle handy, and if you see a skin forming on the surface of the dough, spray the surface to dissolve the skin. The skin will prevent the dough from rising properly and will make shaping the dough difficult.

To assemble: Place a pizza stone on the bottom rack of your oven. Preheat to 500 degrees. Roll out one pizza ball and place onto a pizza peel dusted with flour to help keep it from sticking. Spoon 2 oz of tomato sauce and distribute evenly to ? inch from edge. Arrange cheese, broccoli, pancetta and green garlic evenly around top. Place into the preheated oven. Once the crust is golden brown, remove from the oven. Cut into wedges. Repeat with the remaining pizza.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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