Just another Saturday in the wine country on a cold winter morning for The Cured Ham. No, I don’t take trips to the wine country for granted. It’s truly a great place to live so close to. Driving 90 minutes from Oakland to Geyserville is worth every minute. I’ve always liked the Dry Creek Valley more than Sonoma or Napa; less pomp, more wine than just the popular stuff and more Zinfandel too.
As part of my normal Saturday routine at 10am, I listen to KGO News/Talk 810 and The Dining Around with Gene Burns program. I hit the road to Geyserville about that time and in between commercial breaks, I worked out who I wanted to see in Dry Creek Valley; Glen at Family Wineries, Bruce at Camellia Cellars, and what I wanted to do on this trip; pick up olive oil at Dry Creek Olive Oil Company and eat at Diavola. I made all my stops, had some delicious wine, olive oil, and was entertained by Mr. Burns.
Since this is a restaurant review, not an essay on my weekend, let’s dig in to lunch at Diavola. This is not the first time I’ve eaten at Diavola. My father, brother and I all came up this way for Father’s Day last year and split a couple pizzas and a bottle of Lambrusco. Absolutely delicious. I’ve been in a couple other times in the last year for everything from sausage to pick up for home grilling to a quick bite at the bar. I have yet to be disappointed. Diavola is a far cry from the previous tenant, the Geyserville Smokehouse, and thank heaven for that.
I enjoy eating at the bar. It’s easy to see the kitchen, spy other orders, and make conversation with the staff or fellow patrons. I started with an IPA as I studied the menu. I already knew I wasn’t going to eat a pizza. A pasta maybe? Wait, a specialty item and offal at that, tripe. Yes, it must be tripe today! But let’s not get too far ahead in the review. I’d like to take a moment to talk about breadsticks and foreshadowing. I probably haven’t used the term foreshadowing since reading Shakespeare in high school.
Breadsticks are often an afterthought or worse, a pre-packaged nightmare at many restaurants. The breadsticks at Diavola are fresh, homemade and tasty, which should tell you something about the standards at this establishment. If the breadsticks are being treated with care, it should foreshadow the meal to come. I ate all of the breadsticks which is a strange thing for me. Eating all that starch, especially when I’m having tripe, is just filling up space in my belly. Obviously they were good and I don’t regret my decision to snack before the meal. They paired well with the IPA too.
My first course was a salad of escarole, pickled onion, pecorino, and walnuts with tangy mustard vinaigrette. Salads should be crisp and fresh, period. Flaccid leaves, brown edges, loads of dressing and one too many stalks or cores show that salad can be taken for granted in many kitchens. Diavola makes no mistakes with this salad. The mustard vinaigrette is not overly acidic and the greens are not overly dressed. I can tell you from personal experience, it’s easy to concoct a dressing that is too oily or too acidic and then to add insult to injury, overdress the salad itself. As for the additional elements; the pickled onion is somewhat similar to something I do at home, sort of a cold cure, sweet and sour, agrodolce pickled onion. I like the addition of a generous portion of thick shaved pecorino rather than grated sprinkles or thin shavings. The walnuts sprinkled around the salad are another element adding flavor, contrast and texture. There are several textural elements in this salad that elevate it beyond simple roughage on a plate. I realize I’ve written several sentences about a salad, but if you like escarole, this salad is certainly worth eating. It wouldn’t be the same with arugula or spinach or iceberg, not even close.
Yes, the salad was delicious, but Tripa Italiana is what I’ve been waiting for. Tripe is one of those internal organ meats that can be executed with grace and simplicity or totally wrecked because of a flawed process. While the vinaigrette in my salad was concocted by an alchemist, the tripe was delivered by a skilled craftsman. This was delicious tripe. Best I’ve had in a long time. Tender, no funky smell, no textural issues. The size of the individual pieces of tripe were cut to fork size, so cutting wasn’t necessary. It would have been difficult to cut in the dish it was served. Whether by accident or purpose, smaller pieces of tripe was a smart move.
As with any Italian kitchen, the true test of the cook is his or her sauce or gravy. How did it measure up and was it appropriate for the tripe? The red sauce was absolutely delicious. I started eating my tripa, not by eating the tripe, but by taking my spoon and drinking the red sauce like a soup! The sauce was that good. A handful of pecorino cheese on top integrated the flavors, similar to what butter would do for a pan reduction; bring the dish together.
I spoke with chef after lunch and chatted a bit about the tripe. I was sworn to secrecy regarding his recipe and techniques. Suffice it to say, taking a cheap piece of organ meat and crafting it to taste this good isn’t luck. During my tripe course, I switched over to wine, specifically a Nebbiolo, that paired well with the tripe. I finished off my lunch feast at Diavola with an espresso. Bright white cup and saucer, a layer of crema, not too hot. All is now right with the world.
When I take an inventory of what I consumed that afternoon, breadsticks, salad, stomach and a coffee; basically rustic food, it reminds me of Italy again and a quote from one of Italy’s masters Fulvio Pierangelini,
“Piu la cucina e apparentemente semplice
piu bisogna sorvegliare perche i margini di errore aumentano.”
“The more simple the preparation appears,
the more attention to detail is needed, as the margins of error increase.”
Diavola crafted a marvelous lunch with the attention to detail necessary to make simple ingredients taste wonderfully. I look forward to my next meal at Diavola.