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Cox: Tasty Italian food lives on at Napa's Bistro Don Giovanni

  • Bistro Don Giovanni's executive chef Scott Warner, Friday, July 18, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Donna and Giovanni Scala opened Piatti Italian restaurant 27 years ago in Yountville. It was such a success, Piatti turned into a chain of six restaurants in places as far flung as La Jolla, Seattle, Denver and San Antonio. The Scalas sold their interest in Piatti in 1992, and the next year opened Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa. Guess what? It, too, was wildly successful.

The reason for both successes, of course, was Donna Scala’s cooking and the warm and welcoming atmosphere provided by her husband and the restaurant’s host, Giovanni Scala. She died at age 60 on March 25 of this year. Her death was met with much dismay.

The Scalas transformed the former Table 29 property beside Route 29, just north of the Napa city limit, into a comfortable and smart destination not only for tourists but for locals as well. The grounds were turned into organic gardens full of vegetables, herbs and flowers for the kitchen and the tables. An Italian fountain was installed. The display kitchen was tiled. Two fireplaces crackled with burning logs on cold winter nights. On warm summer days, there was alfresco dining and tables on an enclosed porch. It just felt good to be there.

Bistro Don Giovanni

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It still does.

Scott Warner, who worked as chef under Donna Scala for a decade, has now returned as executive chef. Because of his long experience, the fare remains true to her approach to full-flavored Italian food. She was already a trained chef when she married Giovanni in the mid-1980s and traveled to his home town in Italy, where she learned to cook his family’s specialties. Her vivacity and charming idiosyncrasies — she always wore pearls in the kitchen — can’t be replaced, but her dishes live on through the talents of Chef Warner.

A fine example on a recent night was the pasta special, Trottole alla Lina ($17 ****). Trottole are pasta that resemble a curlicued pig’s tail. The word is Italian for “top,” meaning the child’s toy that spins. Like all pasta at the Bistro, it’s handmade in house. The squiggly noodles are given a good handful of small bits of house-made Italian sausage; onions; the musky, earthy flavor and aroma of porcini mushrooms, all bathed in a lightly spicy and herb-y tomato sauce.

The large main dining room holds a long full bar serving classics like bellinis, Moscow mules, negronis and such, plus cocktails unique to the Bistro, like the Blondie Mary. Choose among 25 wines by the glass or from an extensive by-the-bottle list. A glass of 2012 Seghesio Zinfandel for $12 made a good match with the robust food. Corkage is $20, waived if you buy a bottle from the house.

Dinner began with a summery bowl of Tuscan Tomato and Bread Soup ($9 *** ½), made from fresh, raw tomatoes, skins removed, mashed with Italian bread bits, sweet onion dice, and torn-up basil leaf. Another homage to a Tuscan summer was Nectarine Salad ($13 ***½), with Little Gem butter lettuce, slices of sweet white nectarines, bits of fresh goat cheese, frisee, marcona almond slivers, dressed in a sweet moscato vinaigrette. The sweetness was complemented by bitter red radicchio.

An antipasto called Speck e Melone ($15 ** ½) was oddly named, as Speck is a German word. It means bacon or thinly sliced pork, such as the three thin slices of prosciutto laid over three wedges of green honeydew melon, which hadn’t reached full ripeness yet and thus were a tad insipid.

Three pizzas are offered for adults (there’s one for “bambini” that includes “fries and no green stuff”): ratatouille with summer vegetables, cherry tomatoes, basil, and aged cheese; porchetta with caramelized onions, arugula, gorgonzola, and aged balsamic vinegar, and the basic Margherita ($15 *** ½) with a thin, Neapolitan-style crust smokin’ hot from the wood-fired oven, melt-y mozzarella, rich tomato sauce, and torn-up basil leaves.


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