Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tra Vigne

Tra Vigne is a great, classic Italian spot in St. Helena that was recommended by two great friends in Seattle. They said they've tried to make it a point to go here every time they've been to Napa, and I can definitely see why.

The interior is huge, with vaulted ceilings, well-spaced seating, and a couple lifted booths that overlook the entire dining room. People come dressed as casual or as formal as they want, and nobody seems to mind.

The atmosphere outside is just as friendly as it is inside, except the diners outside get to enjoy Napa Valley's clear, warm nights. And eating among the lush vegetation outside makes you feel like you're in Italy, eating tra vigne, or between vines (thanks, Google Transalte).

My family's meal's meal started off with a beautiful set of bread and olive oil. The bread was crisp and the interior was light. The olive oil was top-notch and rich in flavor.

Our first of two appetizers was a well-executed Classic Caesar. The creamy garlic dressing was punchy, the forno-roasted croutons were crunchy and rustic, and the boquerones, or anchovies, were briny and amazingly flavorful. The cheese was filling, generous, and just sharp enough to complement the crisp, refreshing romaine lettuce.

My favorite of the two appetizers was the Mozzarella Cheese "Al Minuto". The mozzarella is handmade to order, and comes with table-side service. The waiter sliced up the humungous ball of mozzarella--smartly seasoned with Napa Valley olive oil, salt, and pepper--into six long slices.

The cheese is placed on six accompanying slices of grilled bread and briefly garnished with a couple sprigs of rosemary to transform the separates into bruschetta.

The first bite was heaven. The tempered mozzarella cheese melted at contact with my tongue. The outer rim of the mozzarella had just the slightest chew, while the interior offered the creamiest, purest, most refreshing mozzarella I've ever eaten. The light seasoning was perfect, and the amazing olive oil shone on its own as much as it bolstered the flavor of the cheese. Each subsequent bite was as heavenly as the first, and I was darn close to ordering another round.

Our table also shared a Wood Oven Baked Fig Pizza. The blistered crust was rustic and crispy, but the rest of the pizza dough was a little too chewy and moist for my taste. But that didn't stop me from enjoying each and every bite of this pizza. The toppings were fantastic. Sister Mercy's black mission figs, gorgonzola, arugula, and aged balsamic reminded me of a classic fig salad. The figs were gooey and the gorgonzola was sharp. The creamy funk of the cheese was balanced by the bitter arugula and sweetly acidic balsamic.

The best dishes I had at Tra Vigne, aside from the mozzarella, were their amazing housemade pastas. Six options made it difficult for the table to pare the options down to three, but thanks to the waiter's suggestions, the three we chose were outstanding.

The Sage Infused Pappardelle came out as green as soil. I guess I was just expecting the pappardelle to take on the same vibrant color that spinach-based pasta flaunts. But not to worry, the flavor of the actual pasta exposed the potency of sage. And you must know by now that sage is one of my top five herbs. Tossed in a forest of braised rabbit ragu, wild mushrooms, and grana padano cheese, this pasta exceeded my expectations. Despite being just a tad bit on the salty side, the ragu was hearty and lightly gamey. The tender rabbit was unforgettable and the meaty chew of the rabbit got along well with the perfectly al dente ribbons of pappardelle. The cheese was more of a garnish, which is usually something I'd disagree with, but in this case, I didn't mind the scarcity of cheese at all. The earthy portion of wild mushrooms rounded out the whole dish.

While the Rigatoni alla Carbonara wasn't my number one pick of the trio, it was a shining example of how an Italian classic can still make an unsuspecting impact on a meal. I also appreciated how light this rendition of a traditionally heavy dish was. The rigatoni was buoyant and textured, the salty guanciale and flavorful onions were still hearty, and the organic eggs, cracked pepper, and parmesan kept this pasta perfectly seasoned.

Other than the pappardelle, my favorite pasta was the Maltagliati Verde. The basil-and-spinach-infused pasta was the perfect way to lighten up the slow-cooked pozzi ranch lamb, and the sangiovese wine sugo gave the pasta some sweetness and heart, almost as if the slow-cooked ranch lamb was braised in a sweet red wine. The gaminess of the lamb really came through on this one and the maltagliati, like all the other pastas, had an incredibly satisfying texture.

I'm sure you can find great pasta at other places in Napa Valley, but from my experience with Napa so far, Tra Vigne's takes the cake. And if you're debating where to go to dinner for classic Italian food, Tra Vigne definitely, without a doubt, beats Bottega (I know, I know--those are fighting words). The food is traditional with some seasonal interpretations, the service and atmosphere are bright, and prices are surprisingly uninflated: a refreshing experience, to say the least, in a valley saturated with overly pretentious and expensive dining.

Tra Vigne
1050 Charter Oak Ave
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-4444

GET: Mozzarella Cheese "Al Minuto"; Sage Infused Pappardelle; Maltagliati Verde.

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