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."