Justin Graffigna can’t remember a time when he was not dreaming about having his own restaurant one day.
After working decades in the hospitality industry for others, that day arrived a few months ago with the opening of Il Posto, a relaxed, family-style Italian trattoria located just off Highway 29 in north Napa.
Graffigna was going on 13 when he convinced his father, Richard, to drop him off on weekends at the restaurant of a family friend, so that he could bus tables during the busy breakfast and lunch hours.
“I wanted to earn a little spending money,” Graffigna recalled as lunch was winding down at the new Solano Avenue eatery he opened in early April with longtime friend and business partner Arik Housley. “I wanted something to do in the summer.”
From that point on he was hooked. Throughout high school — he’s a Vintage High grad, class of ’92 — Graffigna worked in local restaurants. When he went off to San Diego State, the Napa native hooked up with the Piatti organization and waited tables for the lion’s share of his college years.
By the time he was 21 and wrapped up college, Graffigna had joined the management team of the former Piatti Ristorante in Sonoma. A longtime friend of Donna and Giovanni Scala, he worked at their restaurants in Napa (Bistro Don Giovanni) and San Francisco (Scala’s).
Locals recognize his smiling face from his extensive experience in the front of the house at two of Greg Cole’s eateries, Celadon and Cole’s Chop House in downtown Napa. For the past eight years, Graffigna served as chef/owner Terry Letson’s general manager for Fumé Bistro.
Graffigna and Housley first talked about teaming up to open a restaurant three years ago. Last December, they revisited the idea and decided to move ahead on property owned by Housley’s family in the shopping center that houses their Ranch Market.
“Arik and I have known one another since we were 10,” Graffigna said. “We grew up playing soccer together.”
They started the remodel of the space that would house their restaurant in early January. Even though the project included the installation of a full commercial kitchen, they were able to
complete the project and open Il Posto in just three months.
“We wanted to have a family-friendly, traditional Italian restaurant where you could enjoy foods you know with fresh, clean flavors, offered at reasonable prices,” the Napa restaurateur said.
To find the right chef for their project, Graffigna asked friend and chef Aaron Meneghelli (former chef at Angèle and presently at Farm) if he knew any talented young chefs looking for an opportunity to cook in the Napa Valley.
Meneghelli recommended Adam Clark, a young chef whose early culinary career included an externship at The French Laundry. Clark grew up in the Seattle area and relocated to the Bay Area “to check out new scenery” right after high school. He stayed with his grandmother in Hayward for a time while first pursuing a career in broadcasting.
“I’d waited tables and bartended while I was in college,” Clark says of his initial exposure to the hospitality industry. Not satisfied with where he was headed career-wise, Clark enrolled at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. “I’d always enjoyed cooking for myself as well as friends ... and I thought this would be something I’d like as a career.”
He said the CCA training proved invaluable, not only in teaching culinary skills but allowing him “to get into places I wouldn’t have been able to” if he’d not signed up.
The externship at Thomas Keller’s acclaimed Yountville restaurant led to his meeting chef Ryan Fancher, “who was opening up El Dorado Kitchen (in Sonoma). I hooked up with him and helped him open (the new restaurant).”
Clark spent more than three years working with chef Eric Webster at Calistoga Ranch and then answered Fancher’s call when he took on the job of executive chef at Barndiva in Healdsburg. Clark also sharpened his knives at Aqua in San Francisco before returning to Napa.
The nightly specials at Il Posto — Italian for “The Place” — smack of favorites from the Italian home kitchen.
Every Monday, chef Clark bakes an ample supply of a dish claimed by both Campania and Sicily, eggplant parmigiana. On Tuesdays, the kitchen features chicken marsala, while the blue plate special every Wednesday is a substantial square of toothsome spinach lasagna tied together by the family’s “secret” Papa sauce. Braised veal osso buco takes the Thursday dinner spotlight, while crab cioppino — a rare find on restaurant menus — is the Bay Area favorite served up every Friday.
The Saturday night special is a dish that Italian mamas prepare on special occasions — oven-roasted porchetta, a moist, savory boneless pork roast that’s the ultimate Italian comfort dish. Every Sunday night, the chef determines what the evening special will be after he returns from weekend farmers markets. Recently, options have included green garlic and crab risotto, roasted pork tortellini, as well as chicken cacciatore. Price tag for the nightly specials ranges from $17 to $28.
The kitchen crew at Il Posto always has a good selection of antipasti ready when you arrive for lunch or dinner. It’s so easy to pop a half-dozen fried Castelvetrano olives into one’s mouth, considering they’re stuffed with savory Italian sausage, or to shell fried fresh ceci beans that have been tossed with lemon and fresh herbs. Either of those options will set you back only $7.
Additional antipasti choices range from a cup of minestrone with pesto ($5) to a mixed salumi platter ($12), as well as a couple of calamari offerings — crispy fried with lemon and a romesco sauce as well as sautéed in a spicy arrabbiata sauce with radicchio ($10 each). Fresh herb arancini are drizzled with melted fontina and served with warm marinara sauce ($8), while the grilled bruschetta ($8) are topped at present with eggplant caponata and pecorino cheese.
Insalata choices ($6-$11) include a classic Caesar, mixed greens with shaved vegetables, arugula with peaches and almonds, plus Poppy’s Salad — a red wine vinaigrette toss of grape tomatoes, red bell pepper slivers, marinated red onions and hard-boiled eggs, a Graffigna family favorite.
There’s always a trio of pizzas ready to share ($11-$13), including margherita, verde (green garlic, pork belly, herb ricotta and squash blossoms) and bianco (fontina, mozzarella, gorgonzola, sausage and pancetta).
If you’re in the mood for some tasty pasta ($9-$19), Clark and company have a few tricks up their culinary sleeves. The Swiss chard and ricotta–filled ravioli are napped with the “secret” Papa sauce, while housemade ricotta gnocchi get a flavor boost from pork sugo and arugula. Fettuccine frutti di mare marries the pasta with clams, mussels, prawns and scallops in a basil/mint pesto cream sauce and the orecchiette are tossed with Italian sausage, cauliflower florets, shredded red cabbage, spicy Calabrian chiles and fontina cheese. And what would a traditional Italian restaurant be without spaghetti and meatballs? The chef is providing readers with his meatball recipe and one for the orecchiette dish today.
If you still have room, the kitchen offers a half-dozen secondi, or main courses, ranging in price from $12 for the Il Posto burger with fresh mozzarella, pesto aioli and herbed steak fries to $25 for a grilled hanger steak with cipollini and twice-baked potatoes. Additional choices include chicken parmigiana, veal saltimbocca, pan-roasted polenta with spicy Italian sausage ragu, and slow-cooked wild Coho salmon with braised farro.
Those with a sweet tooth will be happy with a range of desserts that include tempting tiramisu, yummy Italian doughnuts, shimmering panna cotta and a selection of tongue-coating seasonal gelato.
An Italian who never has a meal without a glass of wine, Graffigna not only features cellar selections by the glass and bottle from the Old World, but also from his Napa Valley friends in the wine business.
Il Posto is offering a two-course business lunch daily for $15, which includes choices of pasta or pizza and salad or soup along with a non-alcoholic beverage.
Lunch is served daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with dinner offered from 5 p.m. “until people stop coming,” Graffigna says.
Il Posto Trattoria is located at 4211 Solano Ave., Napa. For reservations, call 251-8600.
Meatballs with Spaghetti and Marinara Sauce
Adam Clark, executive chef
This recipe should make 24 meatballs, so it will provide for any number of portions, depending on how many meatballs you want to serve family and friends.
1 1/2 pounds ground pork
1 1/2 pounds ground veal
3 slices white bread
2 cups whole milk
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 tsp. chopped thyme
1 tsp. chopped fresh oregano
4 Tbsp. chopped parsley (plus some whole leaves for garnish)
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 Tbsp. grapeseed oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Prepared marinara sauce
Package of spaghetti
Cut bread into 1/2-inch cubes and place in a bowl. Pour milk over bread and place a paper towel over bread to make sure that the bread stays submerged. Place in refrigerator for about 5 hours.
Make sure that ricotta is well drained.
Combine pork, veal, herbs, ricotta, salt, pepper and garlic in a large mixing bowl. Squeeze excess milk from bread cubes and add to the bowl.
Mix by hand to fully incorporate all ingredients. Make a small patty and cook in a sauté pan with a teaspoon of oil until fully cooked. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
Using a small ice cream scoop, scoop some of the mixture and form golf-ball-sized meatballs.
Heat remaining oil in a large heavy-bottom pan. Sear meatballs in batches and remove onto a tray lined with paper towels.
Heat up your favorite marinara sauce and add meatballs; braise meatballs for 20 minutes until fully cooked.
Cook your favorite brand of spaghetti according to the package instructions. Add cooked spaghetti to pot with meatballs and marinara. Portion into bowls and garnish with parsley leaves.
Orecchiette with Italian Sausage, Cauliflower and Red Cabbage
Adam Clark, executive chef
About 24 oz. dried orecchiette pasta
1 pound bulk Italian sausage
1 head of cauliflower
1/2 head of red cabbage
1 pound fontina cheese
1/2 oz. Calabrian chiles, chopped
1 bunch chives, finely sliced
2 Tbsp. grapeseed oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Take cabbage and chop into fine strands.
Cook sausage, breaking apart into small pieces.
Cut cauliflower into small florets.
Grate fontina cheese.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
In a large sauté pan, heat grapeseed oil and add cauliflower and cabbage.
Meanwhile, cook orecchiette according to package instructions. When pasta is ready and al dente, drain, reserving some of the pasta water.
Add orecchiette and reserved pasta water to the sauté pan.
Add chopped chiles and fontina cheese. Stir vigorously until the pasta water and cheese form an emulsified sauce; add more pasta water if needed.
When sauce is formed, add chives and season. Serve warm.