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Chef brings added luster to valley dining scene
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Chef brings added luster to valley dining scene

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There’s a new star in Napa Valley’s culinary firmament.

Although he’s only 28, Riccardo Bilotta — the exceptional new chef at Alex Italian Restaurant in Rutherford — has already spent half his life in the kitchen.

A native of Trieste in the northwest Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy, Bilotta grew up in this major port and significant industrial/commercial center, a cosmopolitan city with a long history and rich culture.

He readily admits that the desire to have a little spending money in his pocket prompted him to search for his first paying job in this crossroad between the Mediterranean and Central Europe, a city where diverse ethnic and religious communities coexist.

“I can’t spend the summer doing nothing,” the 14-year-old Bilotta told himself. “So I went to the restaurant where my brother worked and got a job washing dishes.”

A few months later, the restaurant chef — pleased with the youngster’s work ethic and kitchen talents — suggested the industrious teenager enroll in cooking school.

At 15, Bilotta signed up at the culinary school in Lignano Sabbiadoro, northeast of Venice, where he spent three years honing his cooking skills. While in school, he worked summer seasons mainly in five-star hotels, the first of which meant returning to his hometown on the border with Slovenia.

Subsequent seasons were spent in the kitchens of the Relais & Châteaux hotel, Cala del Porto, on the Tuscan coast overlooking the island of Elba, and at the Regina Hotel Baglioni situated on the strategic central Via Veneto in Rome.

“I was very happy in the kitchen,” Bilotta said following lunch on a recent warm afternoon. He was named best student of his class upon graduation, a honor that had a cash prize attached.

A chef instructor hooked him up with a job in Spain. Off to Mallorca the 19-year-old went. But his days on the Balearic island were short-lived. Bilotta had been spoiled working in restaurants with Michelin stars. “I wanted more,” he said of his quest to launch a career.

Deciding to stay in Spain, Bilotta started knocking on doors. One that opened wide was La Broche, one of a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants in Madrid thanks to Sergi Arola — a disciple of El Bulli founder Ferrán Adrià — who won this minimalist, all-white restaurant its two Michelin stars.

“They offered me an internship at first,” he recalls. “But two weeks later they decided to pay me because they realized I was a lot more than intern.”

He moved onto a restaurant with one more Michelin star, El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona, a celebrated dining room launched by brothers Josep, Jordi and Joan Roca after years of working in their parents’ eatery. No wonder the young chef knocked on the door to this family restaurant — it was named the No. 1 restaurant in the world on this year’s S. Pellegrino list.

After nearly five years in Spain — where he not only refined his skills but also picked up the language — Bilotta returned to his native soil, hiring on at Il Pellicano, a Relais & Châteaux hotel on the Tuscan coast at Porto Ercole, touted as one of the most luxurious and elegant hotels in Italy with endless sea views.

At the age of 23, Bilotta made his way to the United States, after being invited to join the culinary crew at Tarallucci e Vino, a popular Italian restaurant on New York City’s Union Square where at least half of the staff consisted of fellow countrymen.

He manned the stoves at Tarallucci e Vino from 2009 until a few months ago when he seized on an opportunity to relocate to the West Coast.

“I’ve always wanted to come to California,” Bilotta said. “I learned there was a position available (at Alex Italian Restaurant), so I looked into it. (Owner) Alessandro (Sbrendola) called me and two days later I arrive in Napa Valley.” Once Sbrendola and his wife and partner, Alessia, tasted the young chef’s food, they offered him the executive chef’s post.

“I love this place — I love Napa Valley,” he said with the smile and demeanor of a tabby who’d just lapped up a saucer of milk. “It’s much different than living in New York, living in the city, and also less stressful.”

Not only is Bilotta pleased with the change of scenery. His wife, Jessica Salvatore, has relinquished her public relations/marketing post with a New York hospitality firm in order to join him in wine country. In fact, she is slated to fly into the Bay Area on Tuesday.

“She’s from Modena and has a great palate ... she and her mother make tortellini at home,” adds the salivating chef. “She advises me on all my dishes. She’ll help us (at the restaurant).”

Proof is in the pasta

Grateful for the bounty of Northern California farmers, Bilotta says he’s also incorporating product and culinary specialties from all regions of Italy in his menus at Alex Italian Restaurant.

“My father is from the north, my mother from the south, I worked in Tuscany and Rome — I have friends all over (Italy),” he declared. “I like dishes from every region.”

Asked if he intends to feature items from his native Trieste, Bilotta said that when fall arrives, diners can expect to find dishes that bring cabbage and pasta together, like one that also incorporates sausage and borlotti beans. He’s also fond of Praga ham, a type of prosciutto cotto (cooked ham) that dates back to an Austro-Hungarian tradition born in Prague about 150 years ago.

A recent tasting menu shared with a friend proved nothing short of spectacular, what with the talent in the kitchen and Sbrendola’s ability to pair outstanding California and Italian wines with every course. Sbrendola worked as a sommelier and also trained others over the years in wine service. For a time he was wine manager for a pair of Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas hotels and served as sommelier at Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino in Santa Monica.

He started us off with a glass of Cremant de Bourgogne from the family of a man who is making considerable impact in Napa Valley, Jean-Charles Boisset.

That was followed by an increasingly fashionable verdicchio from the Le Marche cellars of Villa Bucci. The flavors of apples, white-fleshed fruit and slightly bitter finish in this vibrant wine complemented the order of diver scallops and English peas that the chef had split for the two of us to share, a practice he continued throughout the meal.

A popular summertime dish in Italy, particularly in Tuscany, vitello tonnato is generally a top round of veal, poached, chilled, then thinly sliced and served with a tuna mayonnaise. Bilotta has refined the dish. His preparation, lingua tonnata, is veal tongue, thinly sliced, and presented with a very intense, thick tuna sauce, capers and thyme-flecked crostoni. A textured falanghina from Campania’s Feudi San Gregorio with citrus, apple, mineral and tropical fruit notes proved the ideal pairing.

(To see how this dish is given two exceptional presentations, tuck into chef Bilotta’s version and check out chef Polly Lappetito’s more traditional preparation at Ciccio in Yountville.)

A rich Parmigiano Reggiano mousse proved a playful contrast with a flavorful beef carpaccio, beautifully paired with the flavors of juicy red plums and Bing cherries of a richly textured 2011 Talbott Sleepy Hollow pinot noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands.

The next offering underscored the chef’s creativity — a nest of house-made squid ink spaghetti chitarra, topped with sweet briny Santa Barbara sea urchin and confit cherry tomato sugo. This dish was not to be paired with the usual suspects — Sbrendola knew just what would work. I’ve tasted the dessert muscat — or what the Sicilians call zibibbo — from Donnafugata and was a bit surprised that the restaurateur was pouring a couple of tastes of zibibbo. But wait — this was a wine I hadn’t tasted before, Donnafugata Lighea 2011. The taste of peaches, with hints of almond and rosemary, from this dry muscat gave the dish added intensity — one of the evening’s best pairings.

Chef Bilotta’s love affair with fruits of the sea continued with two more temptations:

• Risotto with chopped lobster, saffron and chervil, the creamy rice and sweet lobster accented by the tropical flavor and silky texture of the always elegant Far Niente chardonnay, this one from the 2011 harvest.

• Cacciucco bianco, an Italian fish stew native to the western coastal towns of Tuscany and Liguria, particularly in the port city of Livorno and the town of Viareggio to the north. This version did not contain any tomato, hence the bianco, or white. It contained a mix of corvina, shrimp, mussels and octopus in a very tasty seafood broth, aptly paired with a white wine from Liguria — Tenuta La Ghiaia 'Atys' Vermentino Colli di Luni — the citrus and minerality of the wine enhancing but never overpowering the dish.

The meal concluded with a tiny taste of glazed pork cheeks and potato mousseline flavored with summer truffles. A 2008 Twomey merlot, rife with cherries and spice, made the dish even better.

A goat cheese cremoso and mint granita were two of the evening’s dessert offerings from this welcome newcomer to the culinary scene that brought the memorable meal to a sweet conclusion.

Pranzo and more

The menu at Alex Italian Restaurant features an average of 10 antipasti, ranging in price from $10 for a cucumber velouté with honeydew melon to $18 for the diver scallops with English peas. Additional offerings include Roman style meat fritto misto, seafood salad, a warm and raw vegetable salad with ricotta cheese and San Daniele prosciutto with Stracciatella cheese from Puglia.

If the kitchen is offering salmon tartare, jump at the chance. The salmon comes from Skuna Bay in British Columbia, then to the table as one of the chef’s most attractive plates — finely diced and formed into a rather large square, dressed with saffron mayonnaise, edible flowers and crunchy focaccia tuille rings.

Ranging in price from $16 for freshly made pappardelle tossed with braised rabbit ragu or ricotta and borage stuffed tortelli with fragrant saffron cream to $27 for potato gnocchetti with lobster, tomato and basil, the rice and pasta selections could be considered the chef’s strong suit. Fresh tagliatelle with slowly braised lamb shoulder ragu, asparagus risotto with glazed quail and Ligurian trofiette with frutti di mare are but a few of the recent menu offerings.

Secondi ($24-$37) include free-range chicken napped with caramelized red onion cream, accompanied by cacio e pepe potato terrine; dry-aged beef ribeye with pink lady apple mustard and freshly harvested baby vegetables; and a pan-seared salmon fillet with French bean pesto, heirloom tomatoes and marinated cipolline.

A recent dessert ($10, $11) menu featured white chocolate mousse with rhubarb granita, caramel soufflé with cherries and Valhrona chocolate ganache on a hazelnut palette.

The extensive wine list makes for good reading; however, it might be best to let the well-versed proprietor guide you through selections by the glass or perhaps a couple of bottled Italian discoveries for the table.

In fact, Sbrendola is launching a program of weekly wine tastings and wine-paired dinners this month. Once the program begins, a vintner from the area — starting with the Rutherford AVA and branching out — will be invited to come to the restaurant on Wednesday evening to present several wines for tasting and then to stick around for dinner where his or her wines will be paired with chef Bilotta’s dishes. That tasting menu will be offered for the rest of the week and weekend, Sbrendola said. Diners can select a single wine or enjoy all of the wines offered with the four or five-dish meal.

In addition, Alex Italian Restaurant is instituting a happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. every day but Monday, with selected wines and appetizers offered at $6 each.

Sbrendola is a native of Emilia-Romagna, while his wife, Alessia, comes from Liguria, near the renowned coastal Cinque Terre.

Alex Italian Restaurant serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with dinner offered from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. It is located at 1140 Rutherford Crossroad adjacent to Rancho Caymus Inn. For reservations, call 967-5500.

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