Since late 2012, Ciccio in Yountville has become a hot spot in the Napa Valley, with would-be diners sometimes waiting hours for a table or spot at the bar for a brick-oven-fired pizza or other Italian-inspired food. And by the way that diners and critics gush over the food, wine and experience, you might expect that the Ciccio phenomenon was the brainchild of some rock-star TV chef who had created a social-media-frenzied following with the help of an expensive New York PR firm. If you did, you’d be wrong.
“We wanted to create a comfortable place where people could come in, eat simply prepared food and have a glass of wine with friends and family. Nothing too fancy,” said Frank Altamura, owner of both Ciccio and Napa’s Altamura Winery.
Altamura has a distinct intensity and frankness that is sometimes missing in the world of food and wine in the Napa Valley. And perhaps that’s what people are responding to. Like their owner, both Ciccio and the wines of Altamura seem more real somehow — they are not too fussy or over-manipulated, but just expertly and carefully prepared expressions of the well-tended ingredients that went into them.
I met with Altamura at his winery and vineyard property located in Wooden Valley, about 25 minutes east of Napa. His vineyard was not easy to find; only a small address marker identified the entrance, and I had to maneuver around a wire fence.
Once inside, however, I discovered that the site is beautiful, with 400 acres of rolling hills and valleys dotted with acres of vineyards and gardens, all of which supply the restaurant. Eventually I reached the winery, a large stone structure that looked to be still partially under construction.
Touring the property I learned that Altamura and his wife, Karen, had established the winery in 1985 but that the property has been in the family’s hands since 1855, when Karen’s ancestors, who had traveled to the area in an ox-pulled wagon, had settled there mostly to raise cattle.
Now 60 of the acres are in vines, mostly red grapes such as cabernet sauvignon but also including Italian varieties such as negroamaro, nebbiolo and sangiovese, with one small vineyard of sauvignon blanc. The winery is nearly finished, although it has been under construction for the last 15 years, according to Altamura.
“The land has been in the family for generations, and what comes from it is both an expression of this place and of us – this is purely family,” he said. “We are nearly done with the construction and the winery will open sometime in May.”
Giancarlo, the Altamuras’ youngest son, joined us. He’s a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a focus on winemaking and viticulture, and when he’s not working at the winery, he’s tending bar at Ciccio.
“I’ve always loved it out here,” Giancarlo said. “I am enjoying being a part of the restaurant, and it’s always nice to work with my dad on the wine side. He’s been making and growing wine for a long time, and so I am always learning.”
Altamura started working in the wine industry right out of high school, learning viticulture and winemaking at notable wineries — Sterling, Trefethen and Caymus — learning the craft under the guidance of prominent vintners such as Randy Dunn, Ric Foreman and Chuck Wagner.
“I had some great luck getting to work with those winemakers,” he said. “All of them taught me something, and Chuck was really good at blending. The goal of any winemaker is to get the flavors of the vineyard into the bottle.”
Beyond the winery, the property also has what he refers to as the Altamura agricultural center for food and wine, a barn-styled building with wrap-around porches and peaked roofs all surrounded with gardens and fruit trees. As with many other things in his life, he designed the building.
“We built this so that visitors could come and taste some of the items that we grow on-site before they end up in the bottle or in the restaurant,” he said. “People can come taste 15-20 different tomatoes, different peppers, our local honey and see our sheep, pigs and chickens. It’s just another aspect of the learning about where the food and wine actually come from.”
After our vineyard tour, he suggested we meet at the restaurant to talk with Ciccio’s Polly Lappetito, a chef whom influential restaurant critic Michael Bauer recently called one of the most underappreciated chefs in the Bay Area. We also planned to taste some wine. Later that evening I’d enjoy dinner at the bar.F
Finding Ciccio can be tricky. The sign for the restaurant is tiny and obscured by a larger sign that reads “Market,” prominently displayed on the red-painted clapboard structure.
“The building was originally built as an Italian grocery store in the early 1900s,” Altamura said. “The city asked us to keep the market sign up — it’s a little confusing, but it’s no big deal and people seem to find us. The name Ciccio roughly translates to ‘little Frankie’ and was my childhood nickname.”
Entering the restaurant feels a lot like going into a friend’s home. Wide-planked wooden floors, pictures and posters on the walls with a tin-pressed ceiling and solid-wood tables complete the scene.
Lappetito was already there unpacking a box of fresh artichokes in a surprisingly small kitchen dominated by a large wood-fired brick oven.
“I was working as the executive chef at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and had driven by this place for years — I always thought it was cute and would make a perfect restaurant,” she said. “When I read in the local paper that Frank was opening a new restaurant, I called him and asked if he needed a chef. I had no idea who he was, but when we talked it was clear we both had similar visions. We both wanted to create a place that wasn’t slick, but instead served simple, excellent food — a place where people felt cared-for.”
“I fell in love with Polly in the first 10 minutes,” Altamura said. “Our visions are in alignment. We’ve become great friends.”
To build their menu the two have traveled around the country to sample and find the best examples of what they wanted to create.
“To find the perfect tomatoes for our sauce, Frank flew us around the country and we must have tested thousands of pizza-dough recipes,” Lappetito said. “I joke with my friends that a lot of people spit wine, but during that time I was spitting out dough. Even the starter we use to make the dough comes from yeast that originated at the vineyard. In the end we have been able to create something that’s both simple, but done right, with deep ties to this place.”
Because they don’t take reservations, even prior to the doors opening that evening a crowd had gathered to secure a seat. When the doors did open, there was an air of excitement as people were guided to the tables by the friendly staff. Frank is there nearly every night to oversee the operation and greet guests.
“I’ve had to wait two hours sometimes for a table, but it’s worth it,” said Leonela Montas, a server at the French Laundry. “It just feels really homey and there’s a great vibe. The food is delicious and is authentic
Her boss, Thomas Keller, said, “When I’m home in Yountville, I enjoy the pizza and the casual environment at Ciccio. It’s a familiar, neighborhood place that has become an integral part of our small town.”
Amazing might also describe the pizza with a dough that is crisp and has just the right amount of chew covered with toppings that are simple, fresh and vibrant, such as savory roasted mushrooms with tangy taleggio cheese.
Beyond the four different pizzas ($24 each) offered each night, the menu includes an array of local favorites: wood-fired artichokes with walnut bagna cauda ($10), whole-roasted fish with Calabrian chilies ($28), pork Milanese ($32), Ciccio chicken ($21) and orecchiette with chicken liver and sage ($17).
The wine list is small, focused mostly on Napa Valley wines with many Altamura offerings. Wine prices are sold at retail, making this one of the few restaurants not to include a markup. Nearly all the Altamura wines are offered by the glass. There is a $35 corkage fee for domestic wines and a $40 corkage fee for non-domestic producers.
“Having wines that were made with our foods in mind really makes a difference,” Altamura said. “Some of the wines on the list are only sold here.”
Two of the Altamura wines that are must-haves include one of my top-10 Napa Valley wines, the 2008 Nebbiolo ($14 a glass or $76 a bottle). Only 90 cases of the 2008 were produced. The color was dark and the aromas were of dried cherry and figs, followed by flavors of dried fruit, earth, leather, clove and black licorice.
For those who want to indulge, the 2012 Altamura Cabernet Sauvignon ($22 a glass or $110 a bottle) is their choice. This wine received 95 points from both Robert Parker Jr. and the Wine Spectator. It is thick in the glass with aromatics of dark-fruit cola, espresso and dark chocolate. Flavors mirror the aromas and finish with cherry-vanilla cream and cappuccino.
For Altamura the future is as clear as the past.
“Everything finds its equilibrium if you do a good job and remain fair and consistent,” he said. “Napa has such a focus on food and wine, but it has gotten a little out of control in some ways.”
Service had started and customers talked and ate happily as staff rushed back and forth delivering food from the kitchen. Giancarlo was serving guests wine at the bar.
“But I’ll tell you a secret,” he said, “Never cut corners, don’t go only for the money and never compromise. Never compromise.”
Ciccio is at 6770 Washington St., Yountville. Info, 707-945-1000 or CiccioNapaValley.com. They don’t take reservations for groups fewer than seven to 10, and takeout is not available. Normal hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to about 9 p.m.. Private events outside of normal hours are possible, depending on availability.
Reservations for winery tours can be made by calling the winery at 707-253-2000, or through the website Altamura.com.