YOU WILL NOT find an Italian restaurant quite like Yountville's Tra Vigne in all of Italy. Or anywhere else.
That's because Michael Chiarello, an American-trained chef who grew up on a ranch in Northern California, has created a style of cooking based on the food of his parents, natives of Calabria in southern Italy, the rich array of products found on the land around him and his own professional training.
Chiarello received his basic training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "I always knew I would be a chef. That's all I ever wanted to do. I also knew I needed to have more knowledge at every turn," he says.
He worked at the Grand Bay in Coconut Grove, Fla., the first of the CIGA hotel chain to open in the United States. Later he became consultant, along with Joachim Splichal, at the Key Biscayne Hotel in Florida.
It was at Toby's Bar and Grill in South Miami, however, where his personal professional stamp first became apparent. "That was the launch in finding out where I wanted my food to go. Toby's was very American and progressive for that market," he says.
It was at Toby's, also, where gardening, which had been a strong part of his childhood, became an indispensable extension of his cooking.
His love of the Napa Valley and special admiration for chef Cynthia Pawlcyn and her co-owners of Mustards Grill brought him to Yountville at a time when the restaurant group was developing plans for converting an old winery just north of Yountville into Tra Vigne. And he has been cooking and developing products in the 1 1/2-acre garden established for the restaurant.
"Rather than concentrating on the eclectic, my focus is on using old food-processing and cooking techniques, starting with the raw product and allowing it to dictate the menu," he says. "I think that's what will set us apart from the crowd."
Chiarello has developed homemade Italian-style cheeses with the help of Laura Chenel, a cheese maker in Sonoma Valley, and he puts freshly made mozzarella on the table daily. Chiarello also is having sausages and smoked meats, such as pancetta and prosciutto, made to his specifications.
However, the pizza bread, which is called pizzetta con aglio (small pizza with garlic) on the menu and is known as schiacciata in Italian (meaning to smash, because of the flat shape of the bread), is an inspiration from his own mother's cooking. "When I was a child I remember my mother making the schiacciata to keep the kids happy until her cooking chores were done. I added the whole bulb of baked garlic as a garnish and to spread on the bread," he says.
During a recent visit to Tra Vigne, we were charmed by the restaurant's fabulous neoclassic Florentine looks and the innovative food. The attractive bread with its airy bubbles makes a wonderful starter with appetizers, an accompaniment with soup or a sandwich bread for picnics. At Tra Vigne it was served warm from the oven with a plate of antipasto before luncheon arrived.
PIZZETA CON AGLIO (Small Pizza With Whole Garlic) 1 tablespoon olive oil1 egg1 cup warm water3 1/2 cups bread flour1 (0.6-ounce) cake fresh yeast2 teaspoons saltVirgin olive oilRosemary leaves, mincedGrated Parmesan cheese1 Roasted Garlic Bulb Combine oil, salt, eggs and water in warm mixing bowl. Sprinkle in yeast and stir to dissolve or mix with dough hook for 30 seconds. Add flour and mix until dough comes away from bottom of bowl. Dough should be slightly moist. Turn out onto lightly floured surface. Knead 1 minute. Let rise until doubled in bulk. Punch down and cut into 3 equal pieces. Roll each dough into a ball. Brush lightly with olive oil and let rise until doubled in size.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 500 degrees. Knead dough from center outward, pressing with thumb and forefinger and rotating the dough in your hand to a 6-inch flat, uniformly thick circle. Brush with virgin olive oil and sprinkle with rosemary leaves and Parmesan cheese, using about 1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, 1 clove minced garlic and 1 tablespoon grated cheese for each pizzetta. Bake until dough is golden brown, about 10 minutes. About halfway through baking, place garlic bulb in center of bread and continue to bake. When cool enough to handle, spread roasted garlic cloves onto pizzetta. Cut bread into quarters and serve at once. Makes 3 pizzettas.
Roasted Garlic Bulb 3 bulbs red garlic1 cup olive oil1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, mincedSaltWhite pepper Cut top of garlic bulb off to expose cloves. Brush generously with olive oil and place in lipped pan with remaining olive oil. Sprinkle with thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. Roast at 350 degrees 1 hour, covered, until garlic within cloves is tender and spreadable.
Photographed by Carin Krasner / Styled by Janet Miller and Rose Mary Aguayo / Herbs courtesy of the Green House, Encinitas / Tiles: Elan, West Los Angeles / Plate: Cottura, Los Angeles