When Umbria chef-owner Giulio Tempesta talks, he gestures broadly with his hands. When he goes from table to table, visiting with guests, he scurries — busy, busy, so much to do to take care of every detail in his cozy cottage eatery.
He chats and shares stories, and it feels like he honestly appreciates everyone who comes to dine on his regional recipes from central Italy. His presence, coupled with feed-your-soul comfort food, make Umbria one of the best new restaurants to come to Wine Country this past year.
Debuted in August in the former Wolf House next to the Jack London Saloon on Arnold Drive, Umbria actually boasts a deep history. Tempesta owned his original Ristorante Umbria in the SoMa section of San Francisco for 21 years before relocating to Sonoma County. The menu remains largely the same between the two spots, including the signature “Da Mayor’s Special,” named for the Honorable Willie Brown. As a generous combo plate of eggplant Parmigiana and superb lasagna al forno draped with tomato-meat sauce, béchamel, mozzarella and Grana Padano ($17.25 lunch/$18.75 dinner), it, like much of the food here, tastes like it came straight from grandma’s kitchen.
In a sense, it does — Tempesta, working with his partner, Michela Tempesta, showcases his “secret” family recipes, he says. So diners dig into delicious staples such as spaghetti dressed in expertly seasoned tomato sauce ($14.25/$15.50) or chunky oxtail ragu (add $2.50), with an optional but highly recommended quartet of beef-pork meatballs (add $6). We power through very good cotoletta di pollo, the breaded, sautéed and juicy chicken breast partnered with crisp-edged grilled polenta and sautéed spinach ($18.75). And we savor homemade spinach gnocchi smothered in Gorgonzola ($16.75/$17.75), using complimentary homemade crusty bread to sop up every bit of creamy cheese sauce.
While in San Francisco, Umbria attracted celebrity diners including Spike Lee, Sharon Stone, and many athletes from the San Francisco Giants and Golden State Warriors. Even in much quieter Glen Ellen, the casual restaurant feels like a special destination. The décor is minimal elegance, with wood floors, cream painted walls trimmed in wood wainscoting, plain wood tables and sleek leather chairs. Coveted seats are on the deck, overlooking a babbling creek. Yet on recent visits, I noticed most guests were dressed up, including children in fancy attire such as a little boy delightfully decked out with slicked back hair, long slacks, and suspenders over his button down shirt.
For appetizers, the smoked salmon carpaccio stands out, the pristine fish brightened with lemon and capers ($14.50). I also like the burrata alla Umbria, delivering toasted ciabatta mounded with silky cheese, arugula and prosciutto dotted with olive oil and balsamic vinegar ($14.50).
Pizzas are pleasing, too, from the Margherita laden with lots of molten mozzarella ($14), to the Bianca topped in mozzarella, Fontina, prosciutto, arugula, shaved Parmesan and a dash of white truffle oil ($17). In Neapolitan style, the thin crust pies are crisp on the edges, and damp and soft in the center.
At lunch, there are excellent panini, as well. I’m torn between my favorites — it might be the thick chicken breast grilled to a bit of golden crunch and capped with fresh mozzarella rounds, tomatoes and greens with a peppery side salad ($17.25), or perhaps the robust porchetta moistened with basil aioli ($14.75).