A Tale of Two Farms
RESTAURANTS THAT GROW THEIR OWN
On a glorious Napa Valley afternoon, bathed in unseasonable warmth and splendor, Chef-Restaurateur Valentina Guolo-Migotto strides through her greenhouse with both purpose and eagerness.
She bends down to run her fingers over the Lattughino, baby lettuces with ruffled leaves as soft as silk to star in salads at her Ca’ Momi Osteria in downtown Napa. She checks on the punterella, the bitter chicory she prepares Roman-style, tossed with plenty of olive oil, anchovies and garlic. She lingers over the Cardo Benedetto, cardoons that have been planted here for the first time, which she longs to cook in milk, before baking with béchamel into a crusty golden gratin.
On Ca’Momi’s one-acre, solar-powered, organic farm started seven years ago not far from the restaurant, the Veneto-born chef grows many Italian specialty herbs and vegetables (the “odd stuff,” as she calls them) that would be difficult—if not impossible—to source locally. Picked in the morning, they’re delivered to the restaurant just hours later for that day’s menu. There are also 22 chickens, whose eggs are used in restaurant dishes, too.
She’ll be the first to say that the farm wasn’t started for ego, nor for any perceived cost savings, either. “If I bought organic produce and had it hand-delivered to me, it would be much cheaper than this,” she says. “It’s at least double the cost to grow our own. It’s worth it because you have more control over it.”
From the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena to SingleThread in Healdsburg to Zazu in Sebastopol, these days any establishments able to grow any of their own ingredients, do. They spend the time and effort in order to get precisely what they want, when they want it. They consider it essential for forging even deeper connections from field to kitchen to plate.
A farm wasn’t necessarily in the cards when Valentina, 46, first moved to the Napa Valley from Italy with her husband Stefano Migotto, 50, in 1997. But then, little was. After earning an enology degree and managing his father’s winery in Italy for years, Stefano was drawn to the Napa Valley because it reminded him of Tuscany.
“It’s a blessed place if you want to grow anything,” he says. “We came here for the wine, but really, what we wanted to do exactly was not laid out. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been worth it, and it’s not the end yet.”
Valentina and Stefano started Ca’ Momi Winery in 2006 with fellow Italian expat and business partner Dario De Conti, 46. The winery produces 100,000 cases a year from their Los Carneros vineyards, as well as from grapes purchased from other growers. They make sparkling rosé, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but surprisingly, only one Italian varietal: Pinot Grigio.
“We believe Italian varieties should be grown in Italy,” Dario explains. “If they grow here, they are not the same. We want to stay traditional.”
That applies to their food as well, evidenced in dishes such as the Puglian antipasti of burrata alongside root vegetables from the farm, roasted in the wood-fired oven until intensely caramelized; and house-made organic tagliatelle tangled around porcinis with a splash of cream.
Every year, Valentina returns to Italy to immerse herself in its culinary traditions. “My style is obsessively authentic,” she says. “I research to find the most historically accurate representation of a dish. I don’t change anything. A lot of Italians come eat at the restaurant and say it’s better than in Italy. I want to preserve the Italian heritage of gastronomy that’s being lost in translation and globalization.”
Valentina doesn’t like to call herself a chef. She never trained professionally as one. But like every Italian, she grew up with a mother and grandmother who were forces of nature in the kitchen. Naturally, she got swept up in their wake.
She may have received a master’s in psychology but, as Stefano says with a chuckle, “Clearly, that was not her passion.” Indeed, when they opened their Ca’ Momi Enoteca wine bar in the Oxbow Public Market in 2010, they figured where there was wine, there had to be food. So Valentina got roped into making pizzas and pastries. “But people started asking for pastas and salads, too, so it turned into a real restaurant,” she explains. “I couldn’t say ‘No.’”
It wasn’t long before they realized they needed more space. So in 2015, they opened the larger osteria and closed the enoteca.
Two years ago, Ca’ Momi—short for Casa Momi, the family home in the Veneto that Valentina grew up in—also started distilling spirits from wine grapes, including gin and vodka. They’re also playing around with brandy and amaro, and even growing hops at the farm for the lager and IPA they started brewing at the restaurant last year.
The farm, too, is an experiment of sorts, as it’s never clear whether their favored heirloom Italian seeds will grow in a climate so different than Italy. A few years ago, they tried to grow Tuscan melons, only to watch them inexplicably rot rather than ripen. Because the farm sits at the bottom of a hillside, they had to add a lot of drainage. Even so, with last winter’s deluge of storms, they lost many plantings. “It was very frustrating,” says Marcos Perez, who tends the farm. “I think the rest of the year will be good, though.”
So does Valentina, who now—with a winery, distillery, brewery, restaurant and farm—has a life she never could have imagined. “It’s our slice of Italy in the Napa Valley,” she says. “I don’t know what else we could add for more authenticity.”
TWO BELLY ACRES FARM AND PETER LOWELL’S AND HANDLINE RESTAURANTS
Buried in a snarl of overgrown coyote grass, this two-acre parcel in Sebastopol was as forlorn as it gets when Natalie Goble and Lowell Sheldon, partners in life and in the restaurant business, came upon it six years ago. Yet it still managed to take hold of their imagination—for good reason. The couple, both natives of Sebastopol who together operate Peter Lowell’s and Handline in that community, had always wanted to grow their own provisions for the restaurants. Moreover, Natalie had a very personal reason to undertake the resurrection of this land. The two acres, formerly part of a Gravenstein apple orchard, are on the 24-acre homestead she grew up on.
While attending Humboldt State University, her father would often drive by this spot. So when it came up for sale in 1989, he bought it, moving from Palo Alto, where he worked as an integrated circuit layout designer, with his wife and three kids for a quieter, simpler, back-to-the-land lifestyle. But the realities of being an apple farmer proved less feasible than anticipated. He went back to work in Silicon Valley, commuting there during the week and returning on weekends to the farm. As a result, much of the farmland fell into neglect.
So when his daughter asked whether she could fence off these two acres just four miles from Handline to start a farm, his reaction was over the moon. “I never wanted to push my own dreams on Natalie,” Brian Goble says. “But when she wanted to do this, I couldn’t have been happier.”
Brian devised a playful name for the farm: Two Belly Acres. But getting the actual farm into shape was anything but a light-hearted endeavor.
Natalie and Sheldon spaded and tilled the land, and brought in a truckload of organic compost to make the soil fertile again. For the first two years, it was just the two of them tackling the farm, with occasional help from their restaurant staff. With Natalie, 30, taking on greater duties as chef at Peter Lowell’s, it was left to Sheldon, 36, to work the farm. But when he started building their home, she tried to manage the farm while still being the chef. That all came to a head when their son Jack was born two years ago. They soon realized they needed extra help.
Fortunately, they were able to keep it all in the family. Natalie’s brother, Vincent Goble, 32, and his girlfriend Logan Stocksdale, 35, who had been living in a house on the property, jumped at the chance to take over the farm last year, even though neither of them has farming experience.
“We had a big learning curve,” says Logan, who had volunteered at farmers’ markets in the past. “We learned to let things go to flower to attract beneficial pollinators, and that when fennel flowers, it attracts beneficial predators like wasps.”
When Natalie and Sheldon managed the farm, they provided their own labor for free. Now, they purchase the Two Belly Acres’ produce from Vincent and Logan. Peter Lowell’s, their organic, sustainable new Californian cuisine restaurant, and Handline, their casual coastal eatery, get first dibs. The remainder is available to Logan and Vincent to sell other ways, such as in a community-supported agriculture harvest subscription program.
“We view the farm as a necessary part of what it means to be cooking seasonally,” says Natalie, who concedes it’s more expensive to grow their own. “It tastes better when it comes from the farm. We shorten the distance so you can eat something at the prime of its season.”
This summer, they also will shorten the name of Peter Lowell’s to simply Lowell’s, which regulars already call it. The restaurant that Sheldon started when he was 27, after working at other establishments through college, will still have the same concept and same chef, Joe Zobel, who formerly cooked at Wexler’s and Orson in San Francisco. Two Belly Acres will continue to supply it, with as much as 70% of its produce during the summer, the rest coming from other local farms.
The farm’s heirloom tomatoes go into soups and sauces at Peter Lowell’s, and into salads and salsas at Handline. Their rapini, favas and garbanzos get cooked into Peter Lowell’s “Beans and Greens,” a daily signature enlivened with garlic, chili flakes, Parmigiano and toasted breadcrumbs. Winter pumpkins get roasted until lusty, then drizzled with black currant salsa before being folded up into soft house-made corn tortillas at Handline.
With the farm producing about 1,000 pounds a week in summer, the bounty can be formidable. “The restaurant is really challenged in myriad creative ways to use a particular ingredient at times,” Natalie says. “People love our soup at Peter Lowell’s, and thankfully, we can make it out of everything we grow here. Our arugula is not the baby stuff you see in all the markets. It’s a broad leaf that has more green flavor and pepperiness. We use it in salads, to make pesto, to top pizzas, and puréed in soup. It’s so green. You eat a spoonful and go, ‘What’s that?’”
Even the vestiges of her father’s original plantings—Fuyu persimmons and pineapple guava trees—have been brought back to life, with the persimmons accenting salads at both restaurants, and the guavas made into jam for Peter Lowell’s breakfast offerings.
On a recent balmy afternoon at the farm, as Vincent and Logan prepped new beds to plant Red Russian kale, Natalie looked on appreciatively. “Family is important,” she says. “When land in this area is not easy to come by and is unattainable for a lot of people, I view this as being given an amazing opportunity.”