Chef Cristian Borchi would put the Energizer Bunny to shame. In addition to being the maestro-chef and instructor for the guests of my “Let’s Go Cook Italian” tours, he is the owner of Ristorante Locanda L’Antica Porta Levante in Vicchio, Tuscany and the Passaguai Cibo 3 Vino wine and snack bar in nearby Borgo San Lorenzo.
He is also a caterer, a frequent TV guest chef in Italy, an active member of Slow Food-Tuscany, a lecturer on all things culinary in Italy, and a husband and father to two beautiful girls. Stilll, he is always looking for something new and exciting. I am convinced the man never sleeps.
In 2015 Cristian and his lovely wife, Alessandra, came to stay with me in the Napa Valley. His idea? What would it look like to open an authentic Tuscan restaurant in California?
We organized a plan to discover if his Tuscan home-cooking would be well received if he followed his new dream of opening a restaurant here in Napa.
How do you define Tuscan home cooking? To begin, it’s based on the Italian concept of cucina povera or “poor cooking.” Simple meals, inexpensive and easily made in large amounts. Hearty food with uncomplicated seasonings and natural flavors that come from fresh, high-quality ingredients. Extra-virgin olive oil reigns, butter is used only occasionally — no vegetable oil or nut oils. Soup is important; Tuscans love soup. Also, unsalted bread, cured meats and Pecorino cheese. Almost all meals end with cantucci, the dipping biscotti.
Cristian had brought along his trusted sous chef, Vangjel Berberi, and together they presented three cooking-class wine dinners at Cedar Gables Inn, where Ken and Susie Pope have offered outstanding visiting chef programs for many years. Each class would prepare four course plus breads. They were all booked within hours.
Janice Ilsley of Ilsley Vineyards provided the wines for dinner. A few years back she’d enjoyed a private “Let’s Go Cook Italian” group with family and friends; she and Cristian have been mutual fans ever since.
The guests got lessons in learning to flip savory Italian style crepes (crispelli), as well as Tuscan bread. In addition to traditional antipasti, the meal started with Coccoli servire con formaggio e salsiccia fresca — an Italian street food that was popular in the 1950s. You fry bread dough and serve it hot with Tuscan cheese and fresh sausage.
The next course (prima piatti) was Salato crespelle farcitec con salsa bechamel, the crepes the class had made, stuffed and served with a Béchamel sauce.
The secondi piatti was an ancient Tuscan recipe for chicken, with a long name: Medaglioni di pollo farciti alla Toscana con salsa di aglio e pesto alla Toscana contorno di patate all’antica. Translated, its medallions of chicken stuffed with Tuscan garlic sauce served with a pesto potato side dish.
Dessert was a Tuscan-style pear cake with saffron.
One of my favorites comments from one of the classes came from Bob Cahn, a gentleman from Marin whose wife had brought him to the class. “This is fun!” he exclaimed as he kneaded bread and flipped crepes.
We also went to one of my favorite places in Napa, Frati Gelato Café, where the wonderful owner, Anthony LuPriori, served as Cristian’s assistant in preparing a four-course dinner of Pumpkin Sformato (a kind of Italian souffle), Ribollita, the hearty Tuscan soup; lasgagne; chicken cacciatore and fried lamb fillet with creamy polenta, fresh bread and extra virgin olive oil gelato. This dinner also sold out in one day, with a lengthy wait list. And if the standing ovation by the 35 locals who enjoyed dinner was any indication, Cristian’s dishes were a hit. The only question they had for him, “When are you coming back”?
Another sold-out event was a cooking class and dinner at Silverado Kitchen, organized in cooperation with Napa Slow Food. It’s not often that you see local chefs and Italian restaurant owners openly taking a cooking class from another chef, but they did.
Cristian’s grand finale event was a seven-course (eight, if you count dessert) luncheon at Cline Cellars for a group of 40 VIPs including a contingency from their Italian wine brand group.
Shopping for each of these activities was quite an education for Cristian. The price of our meats is far less than what one would pay in Italy, but he was shocked by the cost of our produce, even at the chain stores. I know that when we cook together in Italy, the produce is stellar in quality, freshness and size — and roughly half the price of what we pay here. The prices at local specialty markets around town gave Cristian agida — Italian-American slang for heartburn. And what we pay for imported Italian cheeses made him roll his eyes and shake his head.
When he wasn’t cooking, we were touring our local Italian and Italianesque dining establishments. Really, it’s important work. When you’re thinking about opening a restaurant in a place as competitive as Napa Valley, one has to perform their due diligence. Cristian and Vangjel were on a sampling mission and it was fun to watch the faces of our servers when the guys would order several appetizers, several entrees and ask for them to all be served at once. Servers would glance at me, I would just nod and smile; the servers would shake their heads and then we just waited for the line of servers with plates heading for our table. It was equally fun to watch other diners try to slyly take photos of what was happening at our table. We never explained; we just enjoyed the looks of confusion.
What were their absolute favorite new things to eat in the U.S.? The ‘French’ dip beef sandwich at Rutherford Grill and the fried oyster sandwich at Fremont Diner. They still talk about these discoveries. We tried other beef dip sandwiches during our time together, but none compared to the one they had at Rutherford Grill. I would not be surprised if Cristian has recreated this at home in Tuscany.
One question I got a lot was: What’s it like to have two Italian chefs as house guests for two weeks? Did I cook for them? Yes, I did; and Cristian’s favorite was chili and homemade cornbread, especially the cornbread.
And after cooking for hours, they liked to find the nearest pub and drink beer and listen to music. Downtown Joe’s became our after work haunt. Nobody slept much.
Was it a success and would a Cristian Borchi restaurant be successful in Napa Valley? Well, based on the reaction of guests at his dinners, I think the answer would be a resounding, yes. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve asked me, “When is he coming back?’
In the meantime, you can still cook with Cristian or visit his restaurant in Tuscany as part of “Let’s Go Cook Italian” this year. We’d love to share the kitchen with you. If you love truffles, I suggest you plan your visit for the fall group, when we take the group to his restaurant in Vicchio for our annual multi course truffle dinner.