Over the last year, the new chef at Yountville’s Ciccio, Peruvian-born Bryant Minuche, has quietly transformed the food from very good to outstanding with little or no fanfare. And although locals might lament how shining a spotlight on this already popular restaurant could result in even longer wait times for a table, it’s now just unfair to the dining public to keep the news under wraps.
Since opening in late 2012, Ciccio’s has remained a popular local hangout for brick-oven-fired pizzas and other Italian-inspired Napa Valley menu items. The produce and most of the wines served are sourced from local farms and wineries, including that of the owners, vintners Frank and Karen Altamura, and their sons, Giancarlo and Frank Jr., who trace their Napa Valley roots back to the 1850s.
“Our intention was to create a comfortable spot where people could come and eat locally grown produce and drink wines that are from here,” Frank said. “Nothing fancy — just good food and wine.”
Before being transformed into Ciccio (which was Frank’s nickname growing up), the space had housed Gordon’s Cafe. Prior to that the building had been an Italian market, a history evidenced by prominent white letters that spell “Market” on the exterior of the otherwise red-painted clapboard structure.
Because reservations are not accepted at the small, 53-seat restaurant, most would-be Ciccio diners either arrive before the doors open for dinner or must wait (sometimes for more than an hour) for a table or spot at the bar.
A bright new culinary star
Until the age of 12, Minuche grew up in Peru. After school and on weekends, he helped his parents and grandparents at their Peruvian restaurant, La Furia Chalaca, which translates to ”the fiery Peruvian from Callao.”
“I grew up in Callao, Peru, and have worked in my family’s restaurants since I can remember,” said the 28-year-old Minuche. “When I was 12, we moved to Passaic New Jersey, and my parents opened a restaurant with the same name there.”
Minuche grew up learning how to make savory Peruvian braised stews and seafood dishes such as roast fish and ceviche, and he also learned the importance of respecting and showcasing fresh ingredients.
“My intention is to create food that is bright and alive,” he said. “I’ve been around food my entire life, and when cooking something to share with guests I intend for it to retain its natural beauty. Creating a dish, as our guide we look for balance, depth of flavor, brightness, quality ingredients and if a dish is something that a cook might want to eat on their day off.”
Beyond the life-long culinary training with his family, Minuche also graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Spending a “semester abroad” in Napa, Minuche gained a concentration in American Food Studies of Farm to Table.
After college, he worked at numerous restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin in New York City. When he moved to California, he helped open Napa’s now-closed Ninebark before becoming Ciccio’s sous chef under Polly Lappetito.
Hyper-local farm-to-table ethos
The focused menu is mostly crafted on the fresh ingredients arriving that day from nearby farms, including the Altamuras’ own and a few small producers such as Douglas Hayes in Calistoga. The close relationships with the farmers allow Minuche to create a list of what he’d like grown.
“Every day, I wake up to a text from Douglas telling me what he’s got that’s good,” Minuche said. “That and having our own farm allows us to have consistent access to the highest-quality and freshest produce.”
The menu is broken up into snacks, vegetables, pasta, fish and meat, pizza and dessert.
Snacks include the delicious and slightly smoky house-baked sourdough bread ($4) and the must-have garden vegetables with chive cream ($13) that will leave you wondering how many minutes have passed since the lettuce or carrots were harvested from the earth.
Within the vegetable category the cauliflower “Al Forni” with brown butter and pine nuts ($12) is crispy on the exterior and almost creamy in the center, while the ranch tomato Gazpacho ($9) with crunchy croutons is served with a chilled spoon and highlights the depth of culinary training of this young chef and his astute attention to detail.
The Cacio E Pepe ($16) is as good as any I’ve eaten in Rome, and the Bucatini al Limone ($20) with the personalized inclusion of “Tyler’s egg” (reference to one of the Hayes farm-team members, Tyler Schoonover) is rich, hearty and savory.
For those who crave a journey into the world of the super-decadent, the Llano Seco Pork Chop Milanese ($38) is something to behold. Brined and breaded, this plate-covering monument to carnivores is tender, crispy and toothsome.
Oh, the pizza
Each item I’ve tasted from Minuche has had elements that remind me of other memorable chefs: complexity and depth of flavors (Gary Danko), an honest reverence for vegetables (Jeremy Fox) and a decidedly fresh take on traditional fare (Michael Mina). But Minuche has one thing most such culinary masters don’t have: He makes one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten. And don’t think I write that flippantly. I’ve lived and eaten around the world, spending a year in Italy, where I greedily savored Neapolitan pies and pizza ai funghi from Milano.
Ciccio’s wood-fired $24 creations are beautiful to look at, mouthwateringly delicious and wonderfully creative. Take this for example: Swiss chard, Taleggio, Calabrian chili and served with a grilled lemon. Who the heck puts Taleggio on pizza? Minuche does, and it was a transformative epiphany for me. The pizza dough, like the bread, is made from an in-house sourdough starter and takes 32 hours of labor before it is ready for the wood-fired oven where it transforms into a chewy-crispy-bubbly base for the innovative toppings.
The desserts include a cross between cake and pudding: chocolate budino with candied hazelnuts ($6); pannacotta with seasonal fruit jams ($6) and a daily-made cake or pie ($9), such as blackberry and brown sugar pie.
Most of the wines offered are from the Napa Valley. There is a $35 corkage fee for bottles brought in, but there’s really very little need to do that because the wines are sold at retail pricing, which is refreshing and rare. Some of the wines are from the Altamuras’ own winery and are often a good match with the food. For example, a bottle of their 2012 Nebbiolo is a wonderful and rare expression of Napa Valley terroir that goes wonderfully with any of the more savory or meaty dishes.
Unusual to find on a Napa Valley cocktail menu are a handful of Negroni cocktails that add a refreshingly semi-bitter cleanse of one’s palate before the heavy lifting begins. Or let me recommend what sounds like it might be a misprint: the peach and jalapeño martini, which is now on my must-have list. It’s spicy and aromatic while retaining balance and depth.
Ciccio remains one of the must-go-to restaurants in the Napa Valley
“Bryant is a very special chef and we recognize that,” Giancarlo said. “So part of our job is just to give him the flexibility and support he needs so he can just focus on making his food the best that he can. Between him and the other members of our expert team, the local wine and super-fresh produce, I think we are all pretty excited about the future.”