Farmers Market: Ciccio Bringing Fresh, Ingredient-Driven Italian To Yountville

Frank Altamura grew up frequenting the little Italian grocery in Yountville on Washington Street. Since those days, a lot has changed. All around the diminutive free-standing wooden building with the distinctive facade, the machinations of wine country boom and celebrity chef superstardom have proliferated, turning the sleepy town into something else.

And though the building hasn’t housed the Italian grocery Altamura remembers from his childhood for decades (it most recently was home to Gordon’s Cafe and Wine Bar), it has always kept the soul of the market, and throughout the years white lettering across the front declared as much in all caps. And when the building, built in 1916, recently became available, Altamura, a Napa winemaker,  jumped at the chance and the opportunity to open the sort of place he’d been thinking of for years: a friendly neighborhood trattoria where one of the only constants on the menu was that the day’s offerings were driven by whatever came over from the Altamura Ranch in Wooden Valley that morning. And so was born Ciccio — opening in Yountville this May. The name is derived from Altamura’s nickname — Ciccio roughly translates to “little Frankie.”

The labor — and there has been an awful lot of it judging from the slightly pained expression on Altamura’s face when he talks about the work that has gone on for more than a year — of renovating the building has been one of love. In terms of what the place will look like when it opens in May, Altamura says the goal is to bring it back to feeling like what it once was — an Italian grocery.

The building has all the charm of a nearly century-old structure, and it had all the, shall we say, eccentricities, too. “Nothing was straight,” Altamura says flatly.

If you look carefully, window frames are still ever-so-slightly askew, and the ceiling — well, painters just shook their heads when they looked at it. So in addition to being decorative, that lovely tin ceiling currently being installed is also doing its part to even things out, and should fit in nicely opposite the original wood flooring (which was able to be restored). The very walls themselves were pulled apart and rebuilt. The building has been largely rewired. And a brand new new kitchen has been installed with a mosaic-tiled wood-burning oven at its center.

The heart of that kitchen, however, will be Polly Lappetito, formerly the executive chef at the Culinary Institute of America’s restaurant at Greystone in St. Helena, where she was also a chef instructor. She’d been at CIA for more than a decade, and had run the kitchen at the restaurant since August 2006.

Her menu will consist of four or five pizzas from the wood-burning oven (in the $10-$16 range), a rotating selection of small plates and usually a pasta dish (which will come in moderate portions at similarly moderate prices). Altamura describes it as just simple fresh food (if you might have noticed it’s also Italian — but what we like to call ingredient-driven Italian around here). Other than the pizzas, items may change as often as daily. Whenever possible, ingredients will come from the Altamura family ranch — everything from tomatoes for the sauce to pigs for pork dishes to the wild yeast for the pizza dough. Altamura also has plans for the restaurant to make its own cheese and cure its own meat.

Wines will be available by the bottle (as well as the half bottle) at about retail prices. Of course, the Altamura label will be featured, but so too will wines from other small producers around Napa Valley, with an emphasis on Italian varietals.

In addition (and we aren’t shy about saying it — we love them for this), the restaurant will also serve breakfast. Altamura says the plan is to be open for breakfast and dinner Wednesday through Sunday (closed Monday and Tuesday), with dinner service starting around 5 p.m. each day in the intimate 50-seat dining room. No reservations will be taken. Just stop by.

The best restaurant is where they know you, James Beard is said to have remarked. Ciccio is shaping up to be the sort of place where not only does everybody know your name — they also know your nickname.

All photos John Capone