When the two visitors from Naples came into Ca’Momi to order pizza, they said, “Let us see what you can do — because we know pizza.”
Naples, after all, is popularly regarded as the birthplace of pizza, so Valentina Guolo-Migotto and Dario De Conti — both from the Veneto region in Northern Italy — knew this was their test.
“When they tasted it and said, ‘Oh, this is good,’” Guolo-Migotto recounted, “we knew we’d passed.”
After all, when the two, plus a third partner, Stefano Migotto, began to plan their restaurant at Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, their goal was to create a place where visitors would feel, for a moment, like they were in Italy.”
“We want to give customers an authentic Italian experience,” De Conti said. “To let them travel there here — to recreate what you feel in Italy.”
The name of the venture, Ca’Momi — the house of Momi — pays tribute to another Italian, Momi dea Bionda, the previous owner of the house and vineyard the trio purchased in the Veneto.
Bionda, they explain, was famous for his protective attitude toward his house, land and grapes. He was known to patrol his property on an old motorcycle, armed with a rifle, to make sure his grapes were safe, Guolo-Migotto said. “We bought the character with the house. We think he is still protecting us.”
It was wine that originally brought the trio to the Napa Valley. Twelve years ago, Stefano Migotto and Valentina Guolo-Migotto arrived and went to work making and selling wine; six years ago De Conti joined the team. Today they produce 20,000 cases of 11 wines from Napa Valley grapes at their facility in south Napa: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, zinfandel, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, pinot grigio, muscat, and red and white table wines, as well as Ca’Secco, a prosecco-style sparkler.
For their wines they use Nov Twist closures, which, they note, make the bottles 100 percent recyclable, unlike metal screwcaps.
After making their wines for several years, they began to feel the need to meet their customers.
“We needed an outlet,” said De Conti, “but we didn’t want to be one of 2,000 tasting rooms. And being Italian, we think wine needs food.”
“We really wanted to be in front of our customers,” Guolo-Migotto added.
The concept of recreating a small patch of Italy began to take shape, with the idea of serving pizza and authentic Italian pastries and desserts to go with Ca’Momi and other Italian wines.
Why did these Northern Italians opt for pizza?
“Because I am a fanatic of pizza,” explained De Conti, who worked making pizzas for 10 years to pay his tuition while he studied at the University of Padua.
They decided they would make pizza as you find it in Italy, “the highest possible standards, the best ingredients,” said Guolo-Migotto, “to say — look what we can do.”
The result is a thin-crusted pizza with 12 different toppings — but combinations you’d find in Italy, like prosciutto and mushroom, or mozarella, gorgonzola and speck, a dry-cured Italian ham with herbs. For the Porchetta Rucola e Grana (mozzarella, arugula, Parmegiano Reggiano cheese and porchetta), they roast the pork themselves in their wood-fired oven on site.
“So there is no pineapple, no red pepper flakes, no avocado,” Migotto said. They bake their pizzas in a wood-fired oven to order. “We don’t have ‘large,’” he explained. “We don’t have small; it’s a pizza. People ask is it for one or two people? Well, how hungry are you?”
For the most part, they found their ingredients locally, although they do use Italian yeast, speck and buffalo mozarella. “We are blessed with ingredients that are exceptional,” Guolo-Migotto said. “We can be better than Italy. We use all organic: You can taste the difference.”
The translation is ‘oh my God’
The second component of their establishment they decided would be “dolce” — Italian cookies, pastries and desserts. They went back to Italy to find the chef to be in charge of this; they found their perfect choice in a Tuscan, Franco Camboli.
“We had interviewed 25 chefs,” Guolo-Migotto said. “Then we got a call from a man who said, ‘You have to talk to me. I don’t care if you hire me, but you have to talk to me.’”
The result was a six-and-a-half-hour interview with Camboli, a third-generation pastry chef from Cararra, the town in Italy famous for its marble. Camboli, in addition to being a master baker, has a fine arts degree, sculpts and teaches art.
“We decided, he’s absolutely crazy. He’s the guy.”
Camboli came with them in the fall to launch the restaurant and he plunged into the task of creating the sweets menu with Italian passion, particularly when he discovered the quality of local ingredients, especially the dairy products. “The first time I was making a cake here, I had to call my father,” he said. “‘Bapo,’ I said, ‘the ingredients here are fabulous.’”
In addition to biscotti and pasticcini (mini pastries), Camboli oversees production of paste (pastries) filled with vanilla, hazelnut and chocolate creams. The real translation, Guolo-Migotto noted, “is ‘oh, my God,’ because that is what everyone says when they taste them.
“We decided to steal Franco’s passport so he can’t go back,” she added.
In addition the sweets include Italian tortes and al cucchaio — “everything you eat with a spoon” — Italian specialties like panna cotta and tiramisu.
Tiramisu, a rich, creamy, coffee-flavored dessert originated in Venice, Guolo-Migotto noted. “It means ‘pick me up.’ You don’t want me to tell the whole story, but it was all for the men.”
“We call it natural Viagra,” De Conti added.
In addition, for they holidays they’ll be baking Pandolce Ligura, a version of panettone, an Italian holiday cake from Milan. Panettone is “the most famous” of these cakes, Guolo-Migotto said. “Every region has it’s own version of the holiday cake.”
The owners are continuing to tweak their menu, which also includes calzone, tramezzino (little sandwiches), panini (wood-fired stuffed sandwiches) and farinata de ceci, a Tuscan “pancake” made from garbanzo bean flour and olive oil. They’ve begun adding weekly specials on Tuesdays, polenta or lasagna. In addition to Ca’Momi and other Italian wines, they sell soft drinks — ginger baladin, chinotto, cedrata — which De Conti said, “we grew up on.”
They are also selling holiday baskets of products.
Despite occasional protests from customers who want red pepper flakes on the tables, De Conti said, “We’re having fun. This is the way we want to make the business. It’s what represents our tradition. Pizza is Italian fast food; it’s not sophisticated it’s casual, easy, it’s what you order when you don’t feel like cooking. We won’t please everyone but we’re having fun.”
“This is the best you can eat,” Camboli said. “When you eat here, you are in a little bit of Italy.”