Sunday, May 13, 2012

Osteria Monte Grappa

As published in the VC Reporter, December 2009.

Just what is it about an evening of great Italian food and impossibly good (and difficult to pronounce) red wine that make me swoon? Is it the handsome affable waiter with the Italian accent? Or could it be the dim lighting and the accordion music being piped in? I went to Italy last fall to find out, and discovered only after returning home that the answer lies in what isn’t there: impatience, frenzy, cell phones, complicated over-priced menus and indifferent service. When Osteria Monte Grappa opened their doors in October, I also learned that I could be transported right back to an idyllic Italian village restaurant without having to endure the 14 hours of flight time by simply staying right here in Ojai.

About a year ago, I wrote on these very pages about World Flavor Café, the restaurant that formerly occupied the space Osteria Monte Grappa has now taken over. Stefano and Tammi Bernardi, who have served as long-time co-owners of Via Vai and Pane e Vino in Montecito, bought the business and redesigned the layout to allow for a few more inside tables in what remains a remarkably small space. Their rustic northern Italian menu takes from a region in northeastern Italy between Venice and Verona, where the Bernardi family is from.

Despite only having a tiny unassuming chalkboard sign near the street, Osteria will be easy to find. A spacious patio with an olive tree and umbrellas for shade offers comfortable alfresco dining. The indoor space, however, can be a bit cramped and hot and the sloped floor an odd curiosity (our beverages tilted precariously in our neighbor’s direction). Umber walls, glowing sconces and a painting of the village of Monte Grappa are really the only stand-outs in what is an understated, yet tasteful, interior.

The menu is reasonably priced with countless offerings, including a daily selection of specials influenced by Tammi’s fresh organic finds at the local farmers’ markets and Stefano’s wild mushroom foraging. There are several antipasti (appetizers), insalate (salads), pizze, primi (pastas) and secondi (entrees). There are plenty of vegetarian options and the bambinos also have their own menu. During lunch, a half dozen different panini (sandwiches) are offered.

Fresh warm bread - crusty outside and chewy inside – is served upon seating with a delicious spicy olive oil, along with a splash of reduced balsamic vinegar, a nice sweet and tangy surprise. Much like you would find in an Italian village restaurant, there are no bread plates and crumbs are happy to scatter themselves all over the tablecloth. Wine comes next, and what I love most about Italian dining is that the food wants wine and the wine wants food. We chose glasses of food-friendly Barbera, Chianti and Valpolicella red Italian wines, which were poured generously.

Among the dishes sampled during two separate visits were the insalata valcavasia (fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil on a bed of mixed greens), which was large enough to share, and the insalata chiozotta (a gorgeous organic beet and radicchio salad with feta). Our pasta dishes were each perfectly portioned; we had the penne alla padernota (penne with mushrooms in a tomato cream sauce) and the fusilli al pesto di basilico con pollo (fusilli with basil and grilled chicken). Our entrée choices were signature standouts: the frutti di mare con brodetto al pesto (a green cioppino) and the bistecca tagliata alpino (organic New York steak sliced over arugula and topped with a drizzle of truffle oil and shaved grana padano – a poor man’s parmesan). We also found it hard to resist a last-minute temptation thanks to Stefano’s successful porcini harvest that morning, sautéed and served over grilled polenta, topped with shaved grana padano, and drizzled with truffle oil. The earthy pungent flavors were absolutely decadent. For dessert, we enjoyed the pear tart and the panna cotta (similar to flan, but with gelatin).
Flavors and freshness are abundant at Osteria. Particularly noteworthy are the expertly paired contrasting flavors, especially pronounced in the daily specials (Tammi recently found dandelion greens, which were tossed with linguini and pancetta – a perfect marriage of salty buttery bitterness). Menu surprises don’t end there; one night a wild boar pasta special created quite a buzz.
The least expensive item on the affordable menu is the soup ($4.50) and the most expensive (by far, as most items are around $12.00) is the steak or the lamb chops ($23.75). Service is friendly, professional and expedient, and although our pasta was a bit slow to come out on the one night, we were never left wanting for attention.
Having now dined at Osteria more than a dozen times over the last couple of months, I find it refreshing to see experienced restaurateurs at the helm. Their savvy is evident at every turn, from the menu offerings with a focus on simple, fresh ingredients, to the well-informed service and right down to the carefully chosen wine list.
Osteria Monte Grappa’s authentic cuisine and come-as-you-are casual neighborhood vibe will make you feel like you’ve been to Italy…without the jet lag!
Osteria Monte Grappa
205 N. Signal Street
Open Daily for Lunch and Dinner