By Michelle Ball
Trattoria Grappolo is arguably the most popular restaurant in the Santa Ynez Valley. It is loved by both tourists and locals alike for its warm, casual ambiance, its vibrant atmosphere, delicious comfort food and gracious hosts. Truthfully though, I’m not here to tell you why Grappolo is a fabulous restaurant. Ask anyone in the Santa Ynez Valley and they will tell you just that. I want to tell you about our reunion, Grappolo and I that is. It’s been over two years since my lips were last brushed with the sweet custard of their panna cotta and everyday since I told myself it didn’t matter. The terms of my “divorce” prohibited me from crossing the wooden threshold, until greater circumstances allowed me to reserve a seat. Most people lose property after a breakup, I lost a restaurant. It’s time now for a new settlement. Yes, I’ve returned to my place at Grappolo, and it sure tastes good.
It’s barely 6 o’clock on a Tuesday night, and already the tables are filling up. The sweet aromas of roasted garlic and bread dough lift my senses making me feel instantly at home. After cheek kissing at the door – the best of all sobriety tests – we’re escorted to our table. We order splits of cava and the Carpaccio di Bue to start. Shaved raw beef with briny capers, parmesan and arugula pop with the crisp, tart sparkling wine. Salt and lemon juice stings on an open wound, but on raw beef it’s absolutely delicious.
Next, we order the Calamari alla Positano. The restaurant standard for calamari is battered and fried – fooling the public into believing it’s no different than an onion ring. Here, the calamari steaks are stuffed with prosciutto, mozzarella, garlic and parsley. They are then rolled, skewered, pan-seared and finished off in the wood burning oven. This melts the cheese and creates a nice crust on the flesh. As we cut into the swollen poppers, the filling begins to ooze onto the plate and we scramble to contain the rich yumminess.
Next, Chef Leonardo Curti sends out the Crostini alla Romano. The toasted ciabatta is topped with mozzarella and prosciutto then baked in the oven melting the cheese and crisping the meat. As if it’s not gluttonous enough, butter and sage is poured over the top. The guilt that comes with eating thousands of calories in one sitting quickly melts away as I rationalize what I am about to do. It’s been too long, I have no choice. Soft mozzarella and salty prosciutto on thick, buttery toast make me forget my offense as I baptize my sins with the silk of the Chardonnay.
Pizza is Grappolo’s specialty. My favorite part of any pizza is the crust and then of course the toppings. Their thin crusted pizzas have plenty of surface area and are baked in a wood burning oven to create a light flaky crust with crispy toppings. The Pizza Calabrese is ladened with spicy, garlicky salami and cheese. When it arrives, the aroma is overwhelming and it takes all my energy not to pick off the salami before snapping a photo. We quickly fold and devour our first slice. The fruit of the fatty, ripe Syrah is the perfect balance to the heat of the salami and the smokiness of the crust. Since leftovers are certainly in order, I selfishly hoard my share to eat again the next morning with a fried egg.
The tortellini was always one of my favorite dishes before my leave of absence. It was part of my dining ritual, and not one Grappolo experience passed without me ordering these pure pouches of joy. Call me sentimental, but I had to have them. The dish is subtle, it’s really about texture and aroma. Homemade tortellini stuffed with spinach and ricotta doesn’t need to be chewed as it melts in your mouth making it nearly effortless – unlike some relationships. Luckily, I still have enough Chardonnay to make the moment last, and the weight of the dish is a complement to the wine.
As the meal comes to a close, I am reminded of the memories I shared with Grappolo. Chef Curti and his staff are always so gracious and never seem to forget you. It’s like visiting family (if my family spoke beautiful Italian and cooked) who welcome you into their kitchen and feed you until you are fat and happy.
Of course we are now stuffed, so obviously they must send out dessert. The funny thing is, I mustered the courage to annihilate the dish. It really wasn’t that difficult to do, you see, it was sweet, warm and small making it irresistible. The pastry crust was flaky and crisp. The apples were baked and gooey. The caramel sauce was rich and buttery. Evidently, it was delicious.
It’s been too long since my last visit to Grappolo. As I say my goodbyes to the Chef and his staff, I know I’ll be back a lot sooner next time. Come January, we’ll be sure not to miss “Festo Al Vino” where local Italian varietals will be paired with Chef Curti’s most exquisite dishes. It’s a celebration of the marriage of wine and food inspired by Italy. This fantastic two part event will be hosted by the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Club and held in the Grappolo Wine Cellar on January 12th. But I may not be able to wait that long. I may just pitch a tent and “occupy” this parking lot until lunch tomorrow is served.
Please note, my meal was provided by the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Club. However, as a great lover of food, I will never compromise my integrity by writing something that I myself do not believe to be true. Please keep this in mind when reading my posts.