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ST. HELENA — Local residents who say the deli at V. Sattui in St. Helena is just for tourists might be surprised if they it visit themselves.

It is similar to a rosticeria in Italy with a wide variety of prepared foods to eat in or take out. It’s one of the top delis in Napa Valley, with fresh ingredients, items like mozzarella and house-cured prosciutto, braesole (beef ‘prosciutto’) — a signature dish — and sausages made in house by an Italian chef, house-made gelatos and a cheese selection that equals any in the valley under cheesemonger Keith Idle.

All of the food can be enjoyed on the winery’s picnic tables under towering trees accompanies by a wide selection of V. Sattui wines — but don’t even think of bringing in outside food or drink. Why would you when the offerings are so extensive and tasty?

The Marketplace deli was long an exclusive in Napa Valley, for no other wineries had delis, and the county outlawed even minor food pairings with wine tasting at wineries.

That’s changed a bit since Charles Krug and Cairdean Vineyards north of St. Helena opened modest café/delis and the county now allows food pairing with tasting, some bordering on a full lunch.

Nevertheless, Sattui’s deli remains paramount due to its scope.

A chosen location

Dario Sattui was able to create this exclusive operation because he found a spot in 1979 that was zoned commercial before regulations changed, and his privileges extends to allowing the winery to host weddings.

The location, on the right going up valley, is ideal. It avoids left turns across the often-tangled highway at visitors’ typical lunch time; few want to stop for sandwiches on the way home.

The deli started modestly, as did the winery.

At one time, V. Sattui was best know for making sweet wines that appealed to what most wineries here considered unsophisticated wine drinkers, but it makes many more sophisticated wines now; in fact, most experts now recognize that many people simply prefer sweeter wines to more tannic versions.

The most popular wine in the tasting room was long sweet Gamay Rouge, a precursor of today’s popular red blends, but winemaker Brooks Painter also makes serious wines.

Sattui has acquired 300 acres of vineyards in Napa Valley and elsewhere, and offers a selection of notable cabernets and nine zinfandels, many from heritage sites.

Tastes are changing, too, for the winery once sold two-thirds white wines, it’s now two-thirds red.

But it’s the food we’re focusing on.

Gerardo Sainato has been the executive chef at V. Sattui Winery since 2006. He comes from the tiny town of Sapri on the Italian coast, south of Naples, in the southernmost tip of Campania, an area known for its picturesque contrast of mare e monti (sea and mountains).

Gerardo’s father died when he was nine, and his mother raised 10 children alone. She put them (at least Gerardo and the older ones) to work in a store, not as much for the money but for adult supervision when she was working as a school custodian.

Where he grew up, now-trendy ‘farm (and boat) to table’ cooking was just what they did. Gerardo explains, “My mother and sister did all the cooking in the household. All I could cook was eggs!”

When he was 22, he moved to Rome and worked in a bookstore. “When I went off on my own, I found if I didn’t cook, I didn’t eat! I had no idea then I would make a living from something I came to love doing.”

Sainato graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Rome, then began his culinary career at the prestigious and historic Ristorante Celestina in Rome’s Parioli district. Celestina is well-known for its classic Roman cuisine.

He went on to become the executive chef at the Hotel Fenix in Rome, also recognized for its traditional Roman and Mediterranean dishes.

He met his future wife Judith, an American from Piedmont, Calif., at Oktoberfest in Munich. After they married, they visited America, her to finish her master’s degree and him just on vacation.

He ended up as a chef at The Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Restaurant.

Over the course of his time at the CIA, he worked with chefs Joyce Goldstein, Robert Curry, Todd Humphries, Pilar Sanchez and Polly Lappetito.

His mastery of the Italian tradition added to the CIA menu.

A varied offering

As the winery’s head chef, Sainato directs preparation of the popular Marketplace offerings at a commissary kitchen nearby. The food includes a wide variety of prepared foods, salads and charcuterie aged onsite.

Many of the foods are Italian or Italian-inspired, but by no means all: the artichoke cream dip, the deli’s single most popular item, Dungeness crabcakes with dill mayo, Thai noodle salad and Pacific prawns with mustard and shallots (Of course, the shrimp aren’t overcooked, as they are at most American restaurants) and jalapeño skewers, the Mexican-inspired version of Italian peppers stuffed with mozzarella.

The homemade mozzarella, however, is as authentically Italian as you can get without being there. It’s served in all the dishes except those calling for small balls — that’s too much labor.

Sainato recently introduced a fresh mozzarella bar, where mozzarella made at the winery each morning is offered with an array of complements like heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, aged balsamic vinegars and roasted peppers.

Even the paella has Italian connections: The Spanish Bourbons long occupied Sicily and Southern Italy similar dishes are found there.

However, the insalata di mare (cold seafood salad) is like those from home, though he omits the clams as many Americans who accept squid and mussels draw the line there. He also recommends serving it with arugula leaves, but doesn’t include it in the deli version because it wilts so quickly.

The meatballs are his mother’s recipe, and the arancini are vegetarian like those served around Naples, and many other items in the deli. The roast peppers are his mother’s, too.

They also offer barbecue and pizza on weekends and holidays.

Sainato has also gotten to know each of the many wines the winery produces, often coming up with specific recipes to “marry” with the wines. “I enjoy the challenge of matching specific food flavors to each wine’s unique qualities,” he says.

Chef Sainato estimates that he and his staff feed approximately 400 people on an average day in the summer, but weekends like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July are exceptionally busy.

Sainato isn’t the only Italian chef on site, either. Chef Stefano Masanti, a Michelin-starred chef from Northern Italy, is both helping with specialties like salume and also catering for weddings and other events.

V. Sattui’s Marketplace is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is at White Lane at Highway 29 in St. Helena. For details, call 963-7774.

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