Returning home, I craved pasta. I asked Danville friends for their recommendation on local Italian restaurants. They replied, “Gianni’s.” I trusted their palates and hopped on Gianni’s website, surprised that I didn’t know it.
I noticed the restaurant has won several California Small Business Awards related to their community focus. Though many restaurants close on slower Monday nights, Gianni’s hosts its “Tips for Change” program. Volunteers from local non-profits serve the meals that night and “pocket” the tips and 10 percent of Gianni’s profits. Booked by groups a year in advance, Gianni’s contributes about $100,000 a year to the organizations.
The tagline on the website, “Take a delicious trip to Italy without leaving the East Bay,” sounded like standard marketing language. Early on during our recent visit, though, we realized we may have inadvertently overlooked the 11-year-old restaurant. We heard the hostess say multiple times, “Welcome back. Where would you like to sit?”
My first bite of the Italian bread dipped into Italian extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) grabbed my attention. The oil reminded me of the already-empty bottle of Chianti Classico EVOO bottle brought home from Fèlsina winery in Tuscany. As this thought crossed my mind, a couple moved from across the room to a table next to us. Concerned about their breadbasket, the woman told the server, “Don’t forget to bring over my little bowl of olive oil.”
My healthy husband ordered the barbabietole. Owner Gianni Bartoletti named his salad for the Italian word meaning “beets.” The orange balsamic dressing and orange slice garnish provided a citrus counterpoint to the sweet roasted beets.
I chose another artfully presented salad with burrata, a round Italian cheese made with a firm mozzarella coating stuffed with diced mozzarella and cream. Bartoletti cuts the ball in half and then drizzles Italian EVOO on top.
The freshly sliced Parma prosciutto that accompanied the cheese evoked my first trip to Italy as a journalist when we visited a Parma prosciutto producer. On my most recent trip to the Veneto in Northeast Italy, I encountered the softer, sweeter style of prosciutto from Trieste. The more robust Parma prosciutto offered a welcome change.
After the starters, I wanted to know more about Bartoletti and Gianni’s menu. I met him briefly when he left the kitchen to greet the regulars who had moved tables. We arranged to talk to the next day.
I wanted pasta. The homemade pappardelle with ragout in a red wine rosemary sauce with a generous portion of slow braised meat caught my eye.
My favorite pasta, tajarin from the Alba region of Piedmont, is virtually unknown in the U.S. When I mentioned tajarin to Bartoletti the next day, he knew the thin, flat, eggy pasta because he hails from Piedmont. But with hyper-localized home cooking in Italy, tajarin was not often served in the northern part of Piedmont near Switzerland where he grew up. His mother often made lasagna, a popular menu item at Gianni’s.
I asked Bartoletti for his favorite pasta dish. He replied it depended on the sauce. For example, he noted tajarin is best with traditional salsa d’arrosta (aka sugo d’arrosta), the natural, strained sauce from roasted meat, and I agreed. Bartoletti confessed that pappardelle is a favorite pasta. “I like it because it’s wider than fettucine and feels good in your mouth.”
Savoring the pappardelle, I had no interest in an entrée. Meanwhile Healthy Husband liked the roasted Chilean sea bass with Kalamata olives, capers and marinara sauce with zucchini. Other tempting entrées included veal scallopini and stracotto, described as slow-braised boneless beef short ribs. I also noticed homemade gnocchi on the menu with fontina cheese sauce and black truffle.
Speaking of truffles, the prized, edible fungi which grow under specific oak trees, I smiled at the tartufo al limoncello on the dessert menu along with more common tiramusu and gelato. Tartufo means truffle in Italian. The traditional dessert tartufo is covered in chocolate powder evoking the look of black truffles. I liked the idea of light-colored tartufo. The dark version reminds me of savory black truffle which I find too earthy-tasting and strong-scented.
After multiple visits to the Alba area in Piedmont to learn about Barolo wine, I have had the opportunity to enjoy Alba’s more complex, yet delicate white truffles, the most expensive truffles in the world. I was fortunate to be in Turin a few weeks ago when these seasonal truffles, more light beige than pure white, arrived from Alba—and ate them on tajarin in a truffle-crazy restaurant named Tabui, the Italian word for a truffle-hunting dog.
The meringue bits on the outside of the tartufo dessert evoked white truffle. Bartoletti acknowledged that the dessert is a challenge to make, and he orders them in. The tartufo was lemony-scrumptious. My husband ordered the budino alle nocciole. Budino is a chocolate-hazelnut pudding; Nocciole are hazelnuts. Piedmont is a center for hazelnuts and home to trademark Nutella. In Italy I was fortunate to dessert on several budinos.
The wine list is nearly all Italian at reasonable prices. Bartoletti selects the cocktails and several reflect his heritage. The Italian Job, a classic drink with a Bartoletti twist of bourbon, Aperol, and Disaronno, was well-crafted and served in a chilled glass.
I smiled at the name of the Violetta Splash cocktail. Bartoletti titled the drink with a slight deviation of the key ingredient, Crème de Violette, a French liqueur with natural or artificial violet flower flavoring. The change to violetta reflects the Italian pronunciation of violette.
I mispronounce many Italian words. For years while visiting Italy, I said “perfecto” for perfect. Last month, I realized the correct word is “perfetto.”
Gianni’s served as a fine transition back to the Tri-Valley food scene. If I see Bartoletti on another visit, I may say, “Your food presentations are near ‘perfetto.’” We’ll see if he understands my less-than-perfect Italian pronunciation.