In Wine Country - Winter 2012
Among the detritus collecting dust for more than 30 years in Fagiani’s Bar in downtown Napa was a neon sign dating back to the mid-1940s. Shuttered since 1976—after a Fagiani family member was murdered ther —the contents of the ground floor bar remained untouched for decades.
The iconic sign blazed back to life late this summer, restored by the hospitality and design firm AvroKO from New York, which oversaw the project and now runs the whole shebang. The building underwent a seismic retrofit and sprouted a new third-floor dining room and bar, with accompanying rooftop deck, and the restaurant, now called “The Thomas and Fagiani’s Bar,” has been doing brisk business ever since the switch, that set the neon tubes above the door aglow, was flipped back on in August.
The menu includes occasional nods to the past—such as an impossibly decadent warmed monkey bread from Pastry Chef Cory Colton that bathes diners in the same nostalgic warmth as the sign. But for the most part, Chef Brad Farmerie (who comes west from AvroKO’s Public in NYC) is a thoroughly modern and globe-hopping affair, mixing classics with a healthy dash of unexpected twists. The ingredients may be mostly local but the influences reach much farther afield.
The sign, though, remains stubbornly old-school, serving as a beacon for the revitalized Napa riverfront as well as a link to its past.
~ John Capone
If it hasn’t happened already it surely will: Inevitably a tourist will stop in Cinemark’s Century Napa Valley, the brand-spanking-new 12-screen digital movie theater in Napa, to take in the latest blockbuster, and they’ll crow, “In Napa, even the movie theaters serve wine.”
And it’ll be true. In addition to floor-to-ceiling screens, “RealD” 3-D, and some sort of Dolby sound system with more trademarks and copyrights than the poor logo can carry, the new theater boasts its own wine bar serving wines from Coppola and Trinchero. And, hey, if you don’t like wine, well then, you can get a Lagunitas IPA. Yes, in Napa, the multiplexes have beer, too.
Pizzando began life as a pop-up. Celebri-wood-burning-pizza-oven consultant Liza Shaw (formerly of A16) consulted, and Spoonbar executive chef Louis Maldonado created the concept—pizza, fresh pasta and rustic small plates. From the beginning, the idea was to make the most of cramped quarters. And, like a studio apartment with one wall that folds down into an improbably large feather-soft Murphy bed, Pizzando overachieves.
Wedged in a corner spot under Hotel Healdsburg (in the former News Café space), its innovations began out of necessity, but the efficiencies have morphed into assets. From the pizza oven to the diminutive open kitchen, everything is right there. What you see is what you get in the 18-seater. Which meant no space for a bar like the one at sister restaurant Spoonbar. This has not deterred barman Cappy Sorentino from putting together a killer cocktail program. He just thought small.
The result is a revolving lineup of individual cocktails that Sorentino prepares by hand in batches of 6-oz. glass bottles about once every week or two at Spoonbar and then stocks them at Pizzando. Waitstaff pop open the cocktails to order, pour them over ice in a rocks glass and serve them with the bottle.
The stellar drinks, designed to be sipped before or after a meal, will almost always include a Negroni and some variation on a classic milk punch, and then whatever Sorentino is into at the moment. This moment it’s the Vieux Carré, a deep and smoky cocktail invented at Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter in the ’30s. Good things really do come in small packages.
Just before the ban against producing and selling foie gras in California went into effect July 1, restaurants all over the state sent the controversial delicacy off in style, probably serving as much of it in a month of “Farewell to Foie Gras” bashes as they had in the previous year in preparation for what had been dubbed “Foiemageddon.” But, just as people did not stop drinking alcohol New Year’s Day 1920, the foie gras party surely didn’t end on June 31, 2012.
Senate Bill 1520, which enforces a hard ban against production of foie gras and outlaws force-feeding practices (Sonoma Artisan was the only such farm in the entire state and it has closed), is more vague when it comes to what restaurants can get away with.
The day after the ban went into effect, Chef Kelly McCown at the very appropriately named Goose & Gander in Napa Valley, put an item on his menu called simply “Senate Bill 1520,” described as “Torchon of Fergus, bing cherry bachelor’s jam, and Pullman toast.” Fergus is the name of the restaurant’s illustrated goose mascot.
The local constabulary does not shed much light on how the law would be enforced. Jackie Rubin, the police chief in St. Helena where Goose & Gander is located, explains that in her view, SB 1520 is really aimed at stopping producers. She seemed at a loss to explain how the police would enforce the ban at a restaurant. There is a maximum fine of $1,000 for violating the prohibition against selling foie gras. But when asked how law enforcement would determine if the dish in question included liver that was the result of force-feeding and not just any ordinary duck or goose liver, Rubin said they’d ask the restaurant. Beyond this, the law is also full of loopholes for sellers.
“The way the law is written is kind of crazy,” says Andy Florsheim, owner of Goose & Gander. “There’s one foot in the water, but it’s not the whole way in.” Then he says, “I wish we were able to serve it.” Officially there is no foie gras on Goose & Gander’s menu.
Then consider the history of the 90-year-old craftsmam-style bungalow that houses Goose & Gander. Walter Martini, the man who built the house, was a notorious bootlegger and the cozy and dark downstairs bar, the space from which he once ran his operation, still feels like Walter may walk through the door at any moment. Sitting in the conspiratorial warmth of that bar it’s easy to believe you may be in one of the Foiehibition era’s first speakeasies.
From the 2012 Winter issue of SONOMA