Wine Country ideas for living like an Italian
This harvest season, if you'd like to explore the “imaginary” Italy of the North Bay, we've got your passport and itinerary ready.
We asked some of our favorite Italian-inspired chefs, farmers and winemakers to chime in on the question: How do you live like an Italian in Wine Country? Cue the soundtrack of “Il Postino.”
Growing your own Costata Romanesco zucchini then frying it up without a recipe? Check.
Filling up one jug with olive oil and the other with wine? Check.
Slurping up briny oysters and washing them down with prosecco, all while drinking in the ocean air? Check.
U-pick produce? Italian delis? Cooking classes? Italian varietals? The list goes on and on.
Spoiler alert: You will probably work up an appetite for la dolce vita (the sweet life) - a term coined by the 1960 Fellini film - as you wander about, exploring where to shop, how to cook and what kinds of delicious side trips to take along the way.
Grab your fedora or your silk scarf, your Campari spritzer or your paper plane cocktail. Things are about to get very bright and breezy this fall. Salute!
How to shop, cook and drink
First and foremost, Italian culture is all about honoring local and seasonal foods, simply prepared and shared in a leisurely fashion.
“Food is so much a part of their culture,” said cooking instructor Lisa Lavagetto of Ramekins in Sonoma. “I think it is their religion.”
Lavagetto grew up in an Irish family in the Midwest, and everything she ate came out of a can. Then she married her Italian husband and learned to cook from his grandmother, who never used a recipe.
“She used to knock me on the head because I would try to write down the recipe, and she'd point to her mouth - taste, taste, taste,” she said. “That's how they cook, and that's how I cook now.”
Because Sonoma County resembles the gently rolling hills of Tuscany and Genoa, Lavagetto explained, the northern Italian immigrants settled here, while Calabrian and Sicilian immigrants stayed mostly on the East Coast.
For an authentic taste of Italy, she heads to the Genoa Delicatessen in Napa, which imports charcuterie, marinated mushrooms, dried pastas, amaretto cookies and so much more from the Motherland.
“Even their prepared foods are authentic,” she said. “The torta is fantastic, and their raviolis are made right there, soft and tasty, in the traditional way, with ricotta cheese and spinach.”
After Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards and Farm studied wine growing at UC Davis, he discovered himself in the heart of the Dry Creek Valley living among third- and fourth-generation farming transplants from Asti and Genoa with names like Cavallo and Teldeschi.
“I felt like I had died and woken up in Tuscany,” he said. “Being Italian connotes a relationship to the land and local customs. In my world of viticulture that includes, but goes beyond, respect for the local terroir and wine varietals.”
Almost by osmosis, Lou was transformed into “Luigi.” He put in bocce courts at the winery, built his own bread-baking “forno” and drank red wine out of tumblers.
Then, he started filling up his jug at Chateau Rege, the Dry Creek Valley winery that supplied his Italian-American wife Susan's favorite North Beach shop with jug wine. Today, he makes his own jug wine, Guadagni, at the winery as a tribute to old-timer Jim Guadagni. You can refill your jug on Sundays in the cellar.
Preston later turned his attention to growing food as well as grapes, baking his own bread and selling vegetables from his winery garden.
If you're up in the Dry Creek Valley to visit Preston, don't forget to stop by the Dry Creek Peach and Produce for some late-season stone fruit.
Also, swing by Pete Seghesio's Journeyman Meat Co. in Healdsburg for his traditional, slow-fermented salumi for late-afternoon snacking and picnics. If you join the Journeyman Meat Guild, you'll get quarterly shipments plus perks like his annual sausage-making party.
Big John's Market and Oliver's offer a wide selection of Italian and local cheeses, such as the luscious Bellwether Farms Whole Milk Ricotta, perfect with pasta dishes or dabbed onto grilled peaches for dessert.
A few years ago, Deborah Walton and her husband Tim Schable sold their Two Rock farm, Canvas Ranch, and retired part-time to a stone farmhouse in the tiny Tuscan village of Santa Fiora, an authentic Italian community where she now enjoys growing vegetables for herself in her tiny “orto” garden.
Walton's neighbors all grow and shop daily for their own vegetables. Each village has a farmers market that is open at least weekly. If you miss yours, you can always head to another village.