Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 3: Domenica Catelli of Catelli's

After our spirited conversation (covered in parts one and two of this Chef Chat), Domenica Catelli brought out a few of her restaurant's dishes. I asked her about the challenges in creating a menu when a significant number of customers were expecting the exact same dishes that they ate 20 years ago.

"There were certain things that I was held to," she said, "whether it was our ravioli or minestrone, that people who had been coming here for 50 years remember. But there were no recipes: my grandmother had passed away and my dad never wrote anything down, he just said what stuff was in what dishes. I had to recreate these things from sense memory, but also add something of who I am. Even though I grew up Italian and have certain principles of Italian cooking as a baseline, I also grew up in Northern California and love all different kinds of food, and had to blend that together into a menu. I wanted it to be organic and seasonal, and also affordable -- I didn't want it to be a special occasion place or only for tourists."

We began, appropriately enough, with ravioli -- half with dc sauce and half with butter garlic. In part one of the Chef Chat, Chef Catelli claimed her pasta was better than Da Marco's. I thought she was just pulling my lariat, but it only took one bite of Catelli's ravioli to make me a believer. (And I say that as a fan of Da Marco.) Catelli's serves the lightest, most ethereal ravioli I have ever tasted. And the sauces are marvelous, too. The dc sauce is redolent of pungent garlic and fresh parsley, with a wonderful base of fresh tomatoes, while the butter garlic is well-flavored but surprisingly light on the palate. These ravioli are smaller than most, and you could easily take one down in a single bite, but they're so good that you'll want to savor them. Good luck with that. I would come back to Catelli's solely for these ravioli -- which, incidentally, were one of the signature dishes of Domenica's grandmother.

Next up was the meatball slider -- and because the recipe had already been documented on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, Chef Catelli was happy to share the ingredients: "It's got organic beef, chicken, and our house-made sausage made with Niman Ranch pork, and then it's got chard, onion, garlic, parmesan, egg, and sourdough bread pieces. It's a big process. All the meat is roasted separately and then everything gets mixed together and goes through our meat grinder."

The finished product is mellow and comforting. It really is just a meatball covered with tomato sauce on a slider bun, about one step away from a sloppy joe. Which makes sense, since this is essentially a cheeky update of a ubiquitous bar snack. It's quite good, and makes me wonder why other restaurants haven't thought of it. (Maybe they have, but this is the first one I've seen.)

We continued with some grilled local fava beans, lightly coated with olive oil, salt and pepper. Unlike most fava beans I've had, these were so tender I could eat them pod and all, just like sugar snap peas. They were earthy, wonderfully fresh, and cooked simply, which is sometimes (as here) the best thing possible.

Finally, Chef Catelli brought out a deconstructed sandwich with burrata, prosciutto, organic arugula, and grilled bread. It's a fantastic combination of crisp bread, salty meat, peppery greens and a smooth, cool cheese that, if you put everything together on a slice of bread, acts as a natural epoxy. Not to be missed.

Catelli's is, in some ways, a fascinating concept restaurant: applying the local/fresh/organic/sustainable food aesthetic to an Italian-American restaurant. But it only takes a few bites to realize this is no gimmick. It's honest, soulful, and deeply satisfying. I wouldn't be surprised if it became part of many a wine country itinerary.

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Matthew Dresden
Contact: Matthew Dresden