Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine Restaurant Review September 2008
By Dorothy and John Salmon
We joined our friends, George and Elsa Vare, on a lovely Friday night at Vercelli Ristorante in St. Helena for a delightful dinner. For those locals who have passed by Vercelli as they drive or walk up Main Street in St. Helena, we suggest that you give it a try for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s terrific! Vercelli is a cute place with a small outdoor patio surrounded by flowers and a redwood planter fence, located between Cucina Mexicana and C.C Blue Sushi. The Italian food is terrific and the service is just as great. So don’t keep driving or walking past this place! Our server, Brooke, has been at Vercelli from its opening three years ago and is the a Ph.D. we have encountered in our restaurant adventures. She is engaging, smart and funny. Her day job keeps her busy as an agricultural engineer with the USDA, specializing in helping dairy farmers and grape growers in Sonoma and Marin County with water quality and other farming issues.
When you first walk into Vercelli, you will notice sixteen tables with crisp white tablecloths, a wall of mirrors on one side and a bright Italian orange wall on the other that is covered with Italian art and posters. The place is intimate and has that small town, family friendly feeling. It seemed that all the guests, both locals and visitors were having a good time. The dinner menu includes a wide variety of Italian dishes from unique pasta dishes to rib eye steaks, chicken, fresh fish specials and pork chops. Vercelli serves a similar lunch menu and, if you are up for breakfast in St. Helena, they serve wonderful breakfasts that include omelets, French toast and a variety of interesting egg dishes.
We started our dinner adventure with Vercelli’s Calamari Fritti, with red onions, lemon and chipotle aioli for $9, paired with a $36 bottle of Six Sigma Sauvignon Blanc. Elsa observed that the wine “was drinkable and went down without a fight.” The calamari was terrific with just the right seasoning in the aioli sauce. The Pane All’ Aglio, house made garlic bread for $ 4.95 was also very good, served with a wonderful olive oil. George Vare knows his wine, so we put him in charge of selecting. Since his Luna Sangiovese was not available, he selected a bottle of the Benessare Pinot Grigio ($35) for our salad course. Among the four of us, we ordered the Spinach salad, the special tomato and mozzarella salad, the Caesar salad and the crème of broccoli soup with home- made garlic chips. All were wonderful. The salads were priced between $7.95 and $9 and the bowl of soup was $9. This is a place where you can have lunch or dinner and not break the bank.
For a pre-dinner treat, the chef and owner, Israel Perez, brought each of us a small plate of his special gnocchi with pancetta and a bottle of 2005 Violation Syrah. Elsa commented that the gnocchi was like medium firm pillows with a well-seasoned tomato cream sauce. It was delicious and obviously home-made. Our dinners included Veal Picatta ($19.95) , Lasagna ($14.95), Chicken Cannelloni ($16.95) and Eggplant Parmigiana ($13.95), which George thought was delightful. We all thought that the entrees were delicious and very reasonably priced. The tomato sauce used in the dishes was “bright” according to Elsa, who did the best job of coming up with the most descriptive words or phrases for the foods we sampled.
After lots of laughter and terrific food, we HAD to try all the desserts. So, we ordered the house- made Tiramisu which was pretty good. But not as good as the incredible Blood Orange Sorbet or the house- made strawberry shortcake. We fought over the Spumoni which disappeared in a flash. The dessert prices range from $6 to $8.50. Israel Perez and his wife Irma do a great job of making everyone feel t at home in their small home-town Italian restaurant in the midst of a thriving retail area.
Don’t pass it up the next time you are driving or walking down Main Street in St. Helena. That’s this month’s advice from the Salmon’s and the Vare’s. If you are lucky enough to be there on Friday nights when Brooke is on duty, ask for her and you will not only get a good meal, you may learn something about agricultural engineering!
Vercelli is open:
4 cups warm mashed potatoes
2 cups flour (unsifted)
2 tsp. Salt
2 large whole eggs + 1 yolk
4 tsp. olive oil
¼ cup butter
1 ¼ cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Using a fork, combine the potatoes, flour, and salt. Beat the eggs and oil together. Add to the potatoes, mix well, and then knead until smooth on a floured pastry board. Divide the dough into 6 to 8 pieces. Generously dust your hands with flour and roll a piece of dough back and forth under your hands forming a rope about ½ “in diameter. Cut into pieces 1” long, pinching each piece in the center lightly with your forefinger & thumb. It will resemble a bowtie.
Line up the gnocchi on a well-floured sheet covering the kitchen table. Do not let the gnocchi touch each other. Form the rest of the dough into gnocchi, placing them on the floured sheet. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Cook them for 5 minutes. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon, drain well.
GNOCCHI SAUCE AT VERCELLI
1-Cup whipped cream, 1 oz. tomato sauce, peas, pancetta, parmesan cheese, salt & black pepper.