Jan 13, 2020 03:52PM
● By Peggy Spear
Ask any Italian where the best place is for Italian food and you’ll probably get the same answer: home. Really, though, is there even such a thing as bad Italian? How can you go wrong with a meal of mostly carbs, cheese, and bright, herby flavors? It’s a heavenly experience—pure comfort wrapped in a cozy blanket of primo ingredients. Walnut Creek has a litany of Italian restaurants—celebrating milestones, bucking the trends, and withstanding the test of time. Sit back, sip something big and red, and Mangia.
Montecatini Ristorante and Bar As luck would have it, Montecatini opened its doors for the first time at 5:00 pm on October 17, 1989, four minutes later the earth shook from the Loma Prieta earthquake. This fall the restaurant celebrated its 30th anniversary. Born in Vicenza, Italy, Executive Chef Ermes Paulin was encouraged by his parents at age 17 to attend a prestigious cooking school in Rome. “I thought it was silly at first,” he says. “But then I fell in love with cooking.” He trained in London for a few years at a restaurant near Buckingham Palace, before working in Iran before the fall of the Shah. From a casino on the Caspian Sea to a cruise ship in California, Pauline made his way from San Diego to the East Bay and landed a chef position at Montecatini and later purchased the restaurant in 2014.
Ten years ago he married his wife and business partner, Teresa Cheung, a former chemical engineer, who leaves the cooking to Pauline and runs the front of the house, putting together the restaurant’s award-winning wine list, marketing, and reservations system. The secret to Montecatini’s longevity, they both agree, is “good food, good portions, and good wine pours.” It’s food that’s about heart and always deliciously consistent. montecatinirestaurant.com.
PRIMA Probably the most notable Italian restaurant in Walnut Creek, Prima Ristorante opened close to 40 years ago as a deli and wine shop on Main Street before it was transformed in 2005 by Chef Peter Chastain and his partner John Rittmaster, into a stylish Italian food and wine destination. His knack for soulful seasonal flavors is reflected in delicate butternut squash ravioli covered in brown butter, sage, and crumbled amaretti and grilled Piedmontese beef rib-eye steak complemented with truffle sauce, and potato chanterelle mushroom galette.
Berkeley-born Chastain trained under industry leaders on the East and West coasts, then in Japan, before working at the helm of several top-notch Bay Area restaurants. “I’ve been fortunate to have studied food and hospitality with amazingly generous teachers. My goal is for that love and energy to come through in delicious food at Prima,” says Chastain.
With a wine list that now numbers over 1300 selections, Prima has earned an international reputation as one of the best in the world. Not bad for a former Main Street deli. primawine.com
Il Pavone Born and raised in Tuscany, brothers Nick and Marcello Bigotti were smart. Their Olympic Boulevard restaurant, Il Pavone, needed parking, so they bought the building and the surrounding lots. Originally a Walnut Creek livery stable, the bistro’s walls are lined with photos of their loyal clientele and famous patrons of the 30-year-old landmark. “Italian food is universally loved,” says Nick. “It’s like home. It’s like Mama’s food. It’s comfort.” It’s also a family affair, with Nick handling front of the house duties and Marcello running the back and cooking in the kitchen. ilpavonerestaurant.com.
Rocco’s Ristorante Pizzeria Known for its pizza and pasta, Rocco’s celebrated its 20-year anniversary at Encina Grande Shopping Center recently. The secret ingredient? “Great food and hard work. I’m here seven days a week and oversee everything. I’m the face of the restaurant, I’m very hands-on,” says owner Rocco Biale. Another well-known secret about this family-run business is Rocco’s generous community support: the restaurant has donated thousands of gift baskets to local auctions and sponsored countless sports teams.
Being a restauranteur is in Rocco’s blood. His dad and uncle owned an Italian restaurant in San Francisco where he worked as a kid, “with red booths and white tablecloths,” he says. “It was an experience to dine there. There’s a difference between grabbing a bite to eat and having a sit-down dinner. Sometimes people want to be taken care of.”
He’s quick to admit he doesn’t do it all alone. His oldest son Dante is the chief bartender, middle son Dominick is learning the “heavy lifting” of ordering food and drink, and daughter Nina, a new mom, waits tables three nights a week. Many of Rocco’s menu favorites are culled from family recipes—hand-tossed pies like the Dominator and Dante's Inferno, Naples-style pizza appetizers, and the Via Port Alba, made with fresh mozzarella di Bufala. Molto bene! roccospizzeria.com.
Massimo Ristorante It may seem strange that one of Walnut Creek’s oldest Italian restaurants is run by a native Austrian, but don’t tell that to Max Wolfe whose Locust Street Massimo’s is celebrating more than 40 years in business. Known for its Northern Italian cuisine, Massimo’s proximity to the Lesher Center draws before-and-after theater crowds for dinner and downtown business people at lunch. Some customers are regulars from the days when the restaurant was called Maximillian, which Max opened in 1977.
Educated at the Hotel School in Switzerland, then in England and Canada, Max fell in love with cooking all types of dishes, especially the northern Italian kind, and says he serves the best cannelloni and steak in town. His secret to success? “Consistency,” he says. “Consistency in the food of course, and the service. You’re nowhere without good service.” massimoristorante.com.