When it comes to Italian food, I yearn to keep it authentic. How excited were my taste buds when recently introduced to another off-the-beaten-path, family-owned dining establishment just brimming over with authenticity, Riva Cucina, “the Italian kitchen where land and water meet.”
Napa residents Massi and Jennifer Boldrini have opened their restaurant in Berkeley; one visit transported me from their dining room to the countryside of Emilia Romagna.
Massi was born into a family of chefs in Ferrara, Italy, and was destined for the culinary life. At 6, he was learning about curing meats and sausage on his grandparents’ farm. At 15, he entered his first commercial kitchen as an intern in his father’s restaurant in Bologna. Working a 12-hour shift, alongside his father, he learned all aspects of the cucina, and also what it meant to have a strong work ethic.
After graduating from a five-year formal culinary program in Ferrara, Massi moved to Milan to work in a four-star hotel. Subsequent adventures in the culinary world took him to Prague, the U.K. and other locales of Italy. Eventually returning to Emilia Romagna, he gained a popular following.
In 1999, Massi traveled to Los Angeles to train with Italian mentor Gino Angelini, a James Beard Foundation best chef nominee, at Vincenti Ristorante. Massi divided his time between Ferrara and Los Angeles for three years until he met Jen, his wife-to-be, just six days before returning to Italy.
Massi and Jen live with their children in Napa, where he’s brought his Northern Italian cuisine to various local wineries providing catering services, menu development, kitchen management and cooking classes. The couple love catering because it allows them to work together, like the old days at Riva before their popularity required them to hire staff. Massi cooks and Jen serves.
The sea has always been important to Massi. His origins stretch from Italy’s central agricultural regions to eastern coastal towns, offering culinary specialties such as Parmigiana, balsamico, prosciutto, coppa, tortellini, eel, branzino, octopus and razor clams. Massi’s love of the water and equal respect for land, and the plants and animals it sustains, completes the inspiration for Riva Cucina. Riva represents Massi’s passion and his roots.
I was pleasantly surprised that even on a Friday night it took less than an hour to reach the Berkeley restaurant from Napa.
What excites me even more is the fact that Massi and Jen are hoping to open a restaurant for us here in Napa and are searching for a space. Understanding the amount of work and difficulties involved in opening a restaurant helps me appreciate the love the Boldrini’s have for Napa Valley. This is their home, the place they want to raise their children. What they envision is not only a restaurant but a space allowing them to have the commercial kitchen they require for catering.
As I’ve learned to do with chefs I trust, I never make the decision on what to order. Massi came so highly recommended that our party requested that he select our dinner courses. So glad we did; every course was better than the next and because we shared we had more dishes to sample.
Antipasti included herb and breadcrumb-encrusted day boat scallops baked in the shell, fried shrimp and zucchini with caper, parsley and aioli, which was a nice change-up from basic calamari and creative salads. Organic Chioggia beets, carpaccio style, with romaine, Umbrian farro, red wine and shaved Parmesan. The endive salad featured grilled Bosc pear, Champagne vinaigrette toasted walnuts and ricotta salata.
The only place I’d found the amazing ricotta salata has been in Italy and here it was, made in Massi’s kitchen. Ricotta salata is a variation of ricotta that has been pressed, salted and dried.
Ricotta salata is hard and white, with a mildly salty, nutty and milky flavor. It can be shaved or grated over salads, pastas and veggie dishes. It’s a tasting party happening in your mouth.
Pastas are made fresh at Riva, and whether you have tagliatelle with bolognase, passatelli with sauteed house-made sausage, butter sage and cream or butternut squash tortellacci (similar to ravioli) stuffed with brown butter, sage and Parmigiano, you will be a happy camper.
We shared grilled herb and breadcrumb-encrusted local petrole sole with arugula, fennel and lemon, a slow braised lamb shank in a cabernet wine sauce over warm polenta and a traditional Bollitto Misto, like an Italian stew, with simmered beef shoulder, pork loin and cotechino sausage. Honestly, I could not pick a favorite, but the bollitto reminded me of my grandmother’s kitchen.
Suffice it to say, the dolces were equally impressive. I was clap-hands happy that the panna cotta was served simply, the way it should be, without fruity or chocolate sauces.
Massi culls extra-virgin olive oils from artisan producers and creates his own blend for the restaurant. On the night of our visit, it was rosemary-infused on site.
Riva’s wine list features a 2009 Riva Cucina sangiovese, made by Napan Grant Long Jr., and a 2013 Azur California Rose, produced by Julien and Elan Fayard, also Napa vintners.
Massi was generous enough to share a recipe with us.
Insalata Di Indivia
4 heads mixed Belgian endive
1 cup toasted walnut halves
1 large Bosc pear
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated ricotta salata
1/3 cup Champagne vinegar
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, artisan
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, commercial (0.5 to 0.8 acid)
1 pinch sea salt
1 pinch black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place walnut halves in single layer on sheet pan. Bake for 3 minutes. Remove from oven and put walnuts in wire strainer. Shake well to remove walnut peel. Set aside.
Wash pear, cut in half, remove seeds. Slice pear and saute with small amount of olive oil, pinch of salt and pepper until goldish in color. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Clean endive by cutting 1/2 inch off bottom and pulling leaves gently off.
To prepare vinaigrette, place vinegar, salt and pepper in food processor and blend. Continue blending while slowly pouring in the 2 olive oils. Set aside.
In large bowl put endive leaves, toasted walnuts, sauteed pear, vinaigrette, pinch of salt and pepper. Toss salad gently.
Plate the salads by stacking the endive leaves and ingredients vertically. Complete by grating ricotta salata on top.