Valerie: “My Italian class teacher was talking about how good this new Italian restaurant in San Anselmo is. He goes there a lot! He says the chef is actually from Italy and loves it when someone speaks Italian to him.”
Me – suspicious, but hopeful: “Is your Italian teacher actually Italian?”
Me: “As in: actually born and raised there?”
However, what he had been saying gave me hope, in spite of the fact that this was an overheard conversation, so details were missing. I decided to google “Italian restaurants in San Anselmo” and see what that would yield.
Valenti & Co Ristorante & Vino Bar was the only one showing up in the area. Valerie enthusiastically confirmed “Yes, that’s the name I heard!”
So I checked out the website, and my hopes were raised when I read the menu. It listed dishes the way I would list them, it was divided in the Italian categories of antipasti (appetizers, including salads), primi (pastas, risottos and soups), and secondi (entrees), and – very important to us real Italians – there were no Caesar’s Salad or chicken dishes listed.
There was actually a chance that this might be authentic, so I made dinner reservations for the next day, a Tuesday, and took my camera along. If this was good, I was definitely going to blog about it.
Clearly, it was, because here I am, not only blogging about it, but raving about it!
After thirteen years of being recommended “good Italian” restaurants that turned out to be merely Eye-talian, and not even good ones at that, I was almost in tears when I saw our food arrive and then tasted it. It was like dining at some of my favorite restaurants in Italy, it was like the food I used to cook at mine. The flavors were authentic, and nothing was swamped in tomato sauce. Classic dishes like Parmigiana, Arancini and Pizzoccheri were reinvented with a lighter touch, just like chefs in Italy are doing.
Sidebar to explain my definition of Eye-talian: American Italian, with dishes that have been extinct in Italy for at least a century, and featuring non-Italian Caesar’s Salad, chicken in just about every other dish, and food that is swamped in sauce, usually tomato.
With this I am not saying that Eye-talian is not good. Some of it is quite well done and scrumptious, and I enjoy a good Caesar’s Salad like the next person. But it is not the real deal, not to us Italians anyway, who keep getting our hopes raised, only to have them cruelly crushed again and again. I have learned on my own palate that, when a restaurant outside of Italy boasts “Italian Restaurant” in its sign or promotional information, it is usually not authentic at all, but Eye-talian. Real Italian restaurants, like Valenti & Co, have no need to use words; they let the food speak for itself.
By all means, I have not tried every restaurant in San Francisco and the Bay Area, and certainly not everyone claiming – subtly or not so subtly – any degree of Italian-ness. That would take me years. But I do keep my eyes and ears open, and when something sounds good, I go and check it out. If you have good suggestions, by the way, leave a comment, so I can add to my list.
I have done the same during my years on the Big Island and O’ahu. That said, so far this is the only authentic Italian restaurants I have found in thirteen years of life outside of Italy. Not only authentic, but excellent. Because even authentic Italian restaurants can be sloppy sometimes.
Duilio Valenti, chef and owner of Valenti & Co together with his wife Maria, is originally from a small town near Como, in Northern Italy, with grandparents from Valtellina – the Alpine valley just north of Como, in the Lombardia region. Basically he is from a place that is only thirty minutes from where I am from.
One of the first things I asked him was how and where he had managed to find bitto – one of the two traditional Valtellina cheeses (the other one being casera) used in Pizzoccheri, which I had unsuccessfully tried to find everywhere. He explained that he has an Italian specialty food supplier import it especially for him, a whole wheel at a time.
He also shared the story of how, as a child, he used to make bitto with his grandmother, with the milk yielded after the cows had spent time in the higher pastures in the later part of summer. This milk is richer than that produced from the lower pastures, and the cheese made from it never goes bad, just ages.
Duilio has been a resident of the Bay Area for quite some time, and before opening his own restaurant, used to be the chef at Frantoio, in Mill Valley, for about fourteen years.
His wife and business partner Maria Valenti, a spirited and lively San Franciscan with a double life: experienced chiropractor during the day, and restaurateur by night, was the catalyst that helped him take the big step. As Maria tells me: “We are not interested in building a restaurant empire and making millions. We are not in that mindset. We just wish to create a welcoming neighborhood restaurant where people can enjoy good food. We are happy when our clients are happy, and content with our small business.” Or something along these lines.
As you arrive, Maria greets you with her bounding and warm enthusiasm, and by your second visit expect a hug as if you were family. She will answer all your questions and make sure you are comfortable and have all you need before leaving you in the capable hands of Maître d’ Cristiano Marcondes, who has been working with Chef Duilio for many years and is an integral part of the Valenti team.
Maria is an enthusiastic supporter of her husband’s work. From what I understand, she fell in love with his food before she fell in love with the man. Divine scallops were involved if I remember correctly, and now I can’t wait to see them on the menu so I can try them, too.
The menu at Valenti & Co. changes seasonally, but also weekly and sometimes daily, depending on what is fresh and available at the local markets. Sometimes the changes are big ones, sometimes small ones, but, to me, change is always welcome, as it keeps things fresh and alive. It may be nice to know that, when you fancy a specific dish, you can find it at that specific restaurant; but then, once you become a frequent diner eager to taste anything that a chef’s talent will create, if the menu never changes, you run out of new things to try. It gets boring for both the diner and the chef who has to prepare the same things over and over and over and over ….
What you see in these images are the dishes we tried over two separate dinners at just a few days from each other. We all really enjoyed and appreciated how Duilio uses fresh ingredients and lets them speak for themselves. He has a delicate touch, and every sauce or flavor added supports the main ingredient, enhancing the whole. I have not yet tried a risotto and can’t wait. It will be good to enjoy a freshly made risotto the way it was intended without having made it myself. Not that I mind making it.
Francesco, Duilio’s sous chef, is also Italian born and bred, and hails from the opposite end of Italy: Calabria. After a short stint in Los Angeles, Francesco found his way north to the Bay Area and made contact with Duilio. Watching them work through the open kitchen takes me back to my restaurant days. Their workflow is quiet and svelte, with minimal words and subtle gestures as communication.
Two more assistant cooks complete the kitchen team. Everything is prepared fresh to order, so expect dinner to take a couple of hours, which is also Italian style.
The wine list isn’t extensive, but very well selected, and I was happy to find some some excellent, though lesser known, Italian wines on it, going beyond the usual Pinot Grigio and Chianti or Barbera. Not that those aren’t good, but with so much variety to choose from in Italy, always finding the same wines available in one restaurant after another over here gets a bit stale after a while.
The menu selection is quite rich without being overkill. Prices for antipasti range from $9 to $15, and secondi (entrees) range from $29 to $36. Except for the risotto, with primi there is the possibility of doing half portions, so you can have room for another pasta or something else. A regular portion of the Garganelli you see above is $19, while a half portion is $13. By the way, the gnocchi are melt-in-your-mouth, tender bites of divinity. My suggestion is: go hungry and definitely save room for dessert.
You can check the updated menu on the website.
Didn’t I tell you to save room for dessert? How can you resist these delights?
And to be honest, after being seated and having scoured the menu, my first question was: “What’s for dessert?” Because I had to work dessert into the food allotment my stomach would allow.
The dessert menu is not available on line, so here are the selections offered a couple of weeks ago when I dined there: Crunchymisú, which is a Tiramisú with a crunchy touch (see image above); Warm Chocolate Cupcake with Vanilla Bean Custard and Orange Preserve (which I have yet to try); Saffron Panna Cotta Milanese with Chocolate Sauce and Crispy Rice (see image below); Amaretto Cookie and Rum Bonet with Salty Caramel (image further down), which is bliss in chocolate pudding form with a twist that is typical of the Piemonte region: and Hazelnut Semifreddo with Pear Puree.
Desserts at Valenti & Co are $9 and are the perfect sized sweet bite that will round out a perfect meal.
Sidebar – For those of you who do not know, or do not remember, what a semifreddo is: it is a divine and creamy concoction that gets frozen like ice cream but, being prepared with a different procedure, retains more tenderness and richness than ice cream, and is less cold to the bite. Semifreddo literally means half cold, even if it does get frozen, and can be made in as many flavors as your creativity can come up with. If you would like to try your hand at an easy but seriously good one, you can check out my recipe for Sabayon and Amaretti Semifreddo.
Valenti & Co opens for dinner only (from 5 to 10 pm) and is closed on Mondays. This restaurant with the clean and elegant atmosphere and divine food is always incredibly busy. I know people who go there every week, and the word is spreading like wildfire, so reservations are not only recommended, but a must. Metered parking is easily available on the street, as well as in a nearby parking lot, and it is free after 6pm and all day on weekends.
Now that I am finally done with tax papers and cooking and baking for Easter, it is time for me to go to dinner again and find out what medleys of flavors Duilio is creating for spring.
337 San Anselmo Avenue, at the San Anselmo Inn – San Anselmo, Ca 94960 l map
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