UNA FESTA ITALIANA
Updated: Jun 3, 2019
By Dan Shryock
Valley restaurants “get” the boot, serving authentic, fabulous fare
There’s a new pizza place in downtown McMinnville, but unlike any other you will find in town. It is authentic pizza, prepared the way Italians make it.
“We’re really proud of our Italian heritage. It’s something we’re known for. Italy in the Valley gives us a chance to introduce more people [to the wines] and have them fall in love with them.” ~Amy Querin, Cana’s Feast
Pizza Capo — capo is Italian for captain or boss — is the latest in a growing list of restaurants and shops in the Yamhill Valley delivering authentic Italian experiences. They are not alone. Rosmarino Osteria, which opened weeks ago in downtown Newberg, serves family recipes from northern Italy. Fratelli Ponzi sells extra virgin olive oils made from its own olive trees in Italy’s Marche region. And Nick’s Italian Café, McMinnville’s landmark restaurant, continues its decades-long family tradition.
Each adds its own slice of Italy to wine country. And with so much good wine available, it’s only natural people want quality Italian food to accompany it.
“Italian food is comfort food,” says Jeremy Whyte, one of Pizza Capo’s three owners. “Everybody loves pizza. Everybody loves pasta. We love bringing as much knowledge about Italian food as we can.”
318 N.E. Third St, McMinnville
Pizza Capo combines a talented team at the oven. Jeremy Whyte was trained in Italian cuisine in Rome. Scott Cunningham, also owner of Community Plate, has extensive culinary experience and Kyle Monroe is officially certified as an authentic Neapolitan pizza chef. For months, they’ve been making their pizzas in pop-up locations around McMinnville while they prepare their permanent location on Third Street. The in-between time has given them an opportunity to determine what their customers want on their pies.
“We learned a lot. We learned people are more adventurous than you would assume,” Whyte says. “We were pleasantly surprised at the number of people who wanted prosciutto and wanted their anchovies and wanted their fresh burrata (cheese) and things like that. It has been a very pleasant surprise.”
Consider a pizza Margherita, “the queen of pizzas” named after Queen Margherita in 1889, with its red tomato sauce, white mozzarella and green basil. Yes, the colors of the Italian flag.
Rosmarino Osteria Italiano
714 E. First St., Newberg
A few words with Dario Pisoni and you know he’s authentic. Born and raised in far northern Italy, Pisoni brings many of his grandmother’s recipes to his new restaurant in Newberg. But don’t expect a lot of garlic. Or meatballs. Or alfredo.
“I never eat meatballs. I never eat alfredo because I’m afraid of laughing. None of the Italians in Italy eat it, either. It doesn’t exist. It’s something that was invented and given an Italian name,” Pisoni says. “Garlic is only to give a note to increase the other flavors and not to cover them.”
Expect old-style recipes passed down through the family. There’s slow-cooked risotto, pizza, and fresh pasta made on site. There are six kinds of gnocchi on the Sunday menu. An extensive collection of Italian wines covers one wall.
“People don’t have the chance to travel to Italy and taste the pure cuisine so what they know is the commercial (restaurant interpretations),” he says. “Once they taste (authentic Italian food), it’s always better.”
306 Ferry St., Dayton
Chef Marco Baldieri retired from the restaurant business after decades working in major cities across the country. But, like many chefs, he missed the kitchen and sought one more adventure. When he saw a listing for vacant restaurant space near Dayton’s Courthouse Square Park, he drove from California to take a look. By the end of January, the former Barlow Room sported a new sign: Mamma Italia Ristorante.
Mamma Italia has a quintessential Italian feel. Chianti bottles adorn the back of the bar. Photos of Baldieri with famous people cover the walls. Classic Italian pop music softly plays in the background. The menu of recipes refined throughout the chef’s career appeal to a variety of tastes, but Lasagna Valentina remains the most popular request, Kathy Baldieri says. Looking for something dolce for dessert? Kathy recommends the tiramisu.
Nick’s Italian Café/ Peirano & Daughters
521 N.E. Third St., McMinnville
Carmen Peirano steps from the kitchen for a quick conversation, her apron dusted with flour. “I just finished making pasta my grandmother and grandfather used to make,” she says.
If there were a Little Italy in the Yamhill Valley, the capital would be Nick’s. Opened in 1977 by Nick Peirano, the landmark restaurant has been honored with a James Beard Award for culinary excellence. Need a stronger recommendation? This is where winemakers and winegrowers choose to enjoy Italian food.
The restaurant and adjacent Peirano & Daughters Italian deli are now operated by daughter Carmen, who continues the quality and tradition. Nick’s is known for its wood-fired pizza, handmade pasta, family recipes and legendary minestrone soup.
The deli offers meat and cheese plates, sandwiches and fresh pasta. Ransom Wine Co. and Distillery shares space in the deli for wine and spirits tasting.
“This is a unique place,” Carmen says of Nick’s. “We have so many different influences at this point. We have our own special family recipes that have been handed down since our family came over during the Gold Rush.”
100 S.W. Seventh St., Dundee
The family best known for its Oregon wines also imports its own olive oils and pasta. Fratelli Ponzi — Ponzi Brothers in English — was created by Michel and Rebecca Ponzi after they and their two boys moved to Italy’s Marche region. Olive trees grow on the property, so it seemed logical to press and bottle quality oil for shipment to Oregon. They use the oil in their Dundee Bistro, sell it through Fratelli Ponzi, and it occupies a place in their own kitchen.
Fratelli Ponzi in Dundee is more than an olive oil store. It’s a wine bar — a place to stop before, during or after wine tasting. There’s quality in everything they serve.
“There is a huge discrepancy between what Italians eat and what is actually shipped to the United States,” says Rebecca Ponzi. “This is what we want to eat, so we have quality control. We literally have our fingers on everything.”
The pasta, for example, is made by an artisan wheat farmer who grows, mills and makes the pasta for local friends and Fratelli Ponzi. “People taste the difference,” she says. They import the olive oil and pasta to Oregon because “this is what I want to eat. We want other people to try it, too.”
Italy in the Valley
Italian varietals are a focus at Cana’s Feast Winery, and that’s never more evident than during the annual Italy in the Valley event each August.
“We want to bring more exposure to Italian varietals in the Valley,” says winery spokesperson Amy Querin. “There are lot of people who are not familiar with Dolcetto or Sangiovese.”
There will be plenty of both wines and other styles when as many as 14 wineries set up tasting tables from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18, on the Cana’s Feast lawn in Carlton. Food and gelato will be available as well. A $40 admission includes wine tastings, a light lunch and a wine glass of your own.
“We have a long history and Italian roots. [Winemaker] Patrick Taylor has continued with that style,” Querin says. “We’re really proud of our Italian heritage. It’s something we’re known for. Italy in the Valley gives us a chance to introduce more people [to the wines] and have them fall in love with them.”