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Napa's new Scala Osteria: There's a reason that these dishes are classics

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There's no need, really, to ask how Scala Osteria is doing. The people waiting at the door of the new Napa restaurant before its opening time provide that answer.

After restaurateur Giovanni Scala and and his esteemed general manager Aaron Diaz announced last year that they would take over the space left on First Street by the closing of Ca'Momi, curiosity and anticipation just kept growing.

What was Scala planning for downtown Napa? Scala, who had opened Bistro Don Giovanni in 1993 with his late wife, Donna Scala, had created a genuine icon in Napa Valley, a restaurant with enduring popularity and unremitting excellence. 

What next? 

Clues emerged. No, Scala was not just going to recreate Bistro Don Giovanni's menu. Instead, Scala, who came to the U.S. from Southern Italy near Naples, was planning to feature recipes from his home, with an emphasis on fish and seafood. 

The façade changed dramatically with a coat of fresh white paint, and black and white bistro tables and chairs appeared on the sidewalk. 

Finally, as the year came to a close, Scala Osteria opened. Reservations were as hard to come by as a glimpse of blue sky amidst the atmospheric rivers overhead. 

When Paul Franson, publisher of lifestyle newsletter Napa Life, called to report he'd managed to score a reservation, I followed him, with my daughter, through a downpour to the door to see what we would discover.

Like the exterior, the interior has benefited from an overall lightening — it's bright and open, but despite the crowd filling every table as well as the long bar, on the stormy night, the acoustic design kept the noise level remarkably low, or as Paul put it, "We can carry on a conversation, and I can hear what people are saying."

While the menu is distinct from Bistro Don Giovanni, one thing is consistent, the emphasis on classic and unquestionably excellent food. 

"It's what I love about working here," said executive chef Bryce Palmer. "If you look at the dishes, there's a simplicity. Ingredients aren't added on just to be different, to keep changing. There's a reason these dishes are called classics."

As promised the menu features fish and seafood dishes, but it includes carne and paste as well as the pesce e crostacei, in addition to pizza, salads, contorni (sides) and antipasti hot and cold and oysters served up from an attractive station near a mural of southern Italy. 

We started with a glass of Henriot Brut Champagne and a ciabattina with warm bagna cauda, ($4) which comes with a warm anchovy butter for dipping the fresh, warm loaf. I would have been happy to make a meal of this but agreed to try other dishes. 

From the antipasti freddi list, we chose the accuighe bianche, ($16) a plate house-marinated white anchovies in an arrangement with puntarella (a variety of chicory) celery, lemon, Calabrian chili and Parmigiano cheese. Entirely simple, utterly delicious.

For a pasta, we chose the calamarata with Monterey Bay squid ($32). It's a hearty dish that also has white beans spicy sausage, tomatoes and Calabrian chili. A soul-warming dish on a stormy night (or probably any night).

The pizzas ($22-$26) are also a study in simplicity with thin crisp crusts, nothing over-done or weighted down by too many toppings. We opted for the unusual pizza fritta, a folded, fried version that resembled a generous-sized calzone, stuffed with four kinds of cheese, and extremely tasty.

Our final dish, before we were in danger of having to roll out the door, was the halibut acqua pazza (market price). This is an inspired dish, in which the bone-in fish is gently poached in a tomato-based broth and served with grilled bread to sop up every bit of the savory broth, flavored with garlic, basil and chili. We did this, but then were too full for dessert.

I went back on another day with Napa Valley Register photographer Nick Otto, who was there to work not feast (but he did sample the pizzas). It was an opportunity to view other dishes, among them, an entirely scrumptious sciatletielli with clams, shrimp and scallops in a basil white wine sauce finished with shrimp butter ($34). And from the meat selections, the pork chop Milanese ($32) in a lemon and caper sauce, and the whole petrale sole, grilled and garnished (market price.)

This is but a glimpse of the entire menu, which is artfully balanced. Favorites from Bistro Don Giovanni appear such as the chopped BDG Caesar salad ($10/$18) with optional shrimp ($30) or spicy chicken ($28) additions. Also you can order the perennial BDG favorite, Mama Concetta's meatballs, served with soft polenta and a tomato ragu. ($18) as well as the BDG Pollo alla Diavola ($28), the oven roasted spicy chicken.

But there is much more to explore: A grilled branzano ($36), a dish of rigatoni with tomatoes, garlic and basil ($12/$23); the spicy Caggiano sausage with brocoli rabe ($25), a dish of wood-fire roasted mussels with grilled bread ($32) or the Ravioli alla Paolo, deliciously described as pasta stuffed with spinach, and ricotta and pecorino cheeses, and topped with "Paolo's world-famous Genovese pesto."

There is even a lunch special, served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., a ham and cheese panino, served with salad or fries ($19).

The beverage list, in addition to cocktails and beers (on tap and interesting IPAs) includes fresh lemonade and Tomarchio Bio Sicilian Limonata and Aranciata Rosa ($5), and the wine list offers a good selection of wines by the glass, from Napa, as well Italian, French, Greek choices. The prices range from $14 for the Scala Osteria Chardonnay to $22 for Elizabeth Spencer Cab, and the Italian selections look especially enticing.  

Now all you have to do is get a reservation. 

Scala Osteria is open from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily at 1141 First St., Napa. Call 707-6374380 or visit scalaosteria.com. Reservations are through Open Table. 

A major Bay Area storm caused the Napa River to rise Wednesday and Saturday morning, with another band of heavy rain in the forecast for the weekend.

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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