CHEF UMBERTO PALA IS APPROACHING HIS SEVENTH YEAR IN WILLOW GLEN, WELL SITUATED IN ONE OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD’S MORE HISTORIC BUILDINGS, SERVING CUISINE WITH A LOCAL AND AUTHENTIC TOUCH.
Reading a menu at Vin Santo is a veritable experience coming from the life of a genuine Italian Chef, who was born in Bergamo, Italy. Indeed, seeing the chef once again this last week, he had just returned from his hometown in the Lombardy region. He gets a bit homesick but admits that it’s easier to make a living here in California. Still, Chef Pala has thought — and still entertains the idea — of putting together a tour of Italy. Maybe one day, he will guide some of his customers abroad for a vacation in his home region. Meanwhile, his recent visit with his wife Sharlene was worth it…
Sharlene had emailed that they would be returning to the restaurant soon; whereas, upon arriving with her husband, Chef Umberto then sat down at the table and announced that he came back with a new feature for his restaurant. It’s what he called in Italian, a “paiolo,” or what we know in English as a giant copper polenta pot that’s made especially for cooking and stirring polenta. The chef was excited about this new device and says that it comes complete with an automatic stirring mechanism in which the robotic arm continuously stirs and stirs the pot! — that’s slowly, continuously, effortlessly stirring the pot. But, not just any common pot, but a traditional one that’s made for cooking polenta authentically; which, of course, is always in a copper vessel.
A paiolo that’s made of “rame” — this latter word being the Italian for copper — is an antique tradition of artisanal means. For example, in Italy, there are companies like Rufoni, which are masters of the copper craft for cookware. Chef Umberto is not unlike many northern Italians that use a copper polenta pot; but, what is uncommon is how he brings his individual, regional and intuitive techniques, additionally with Vin Santo’s new pailo that will be approximately 15 liters (or roughly 4 quarts). That’s a fair size larger than what’s handy at most Italian homes (see caption below). There will be quite a few servings of polenta for everyone!
Chef Umberto is currently thinking about setting up the paiolo in a visible spot in the restaurant, whereas guests could see it cooking the polenta slowly (as it should be, since it is a hard corn grain) and then served at the table in small plates as a starter. This will go well with the chef’s other dishes, like the meats that are braised in his typical Lombardy style.
Try Chef Umberto’s “Cinghiale su Spaghetti” which is exemplary of his regional Italian contributions. That’s local wild Boar braised for 3 ½ hours with red wine, vegetables and porcini mushrooms; served over spaghetti pasta and tossed with mixed mushroom and truffle oil. “Cinghiale” is the Italian for wild boar, a unique choice of meat in that nation’s cuisine.
Vin Santo also offers “Casoncelli Bergamasca,” a special homemade pasta (handmade, in-house) that is like a sausage ravioli, with pancetta, butter, sage and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Like the name describes, the dish is typical of the foods from Bergamo.
Chef Umberto is happy to demonstrate and share his Italian sensibility to the local scene, drawing on local goods that he hand-picks himself. This is a plus to being visible in what’s a well-appreciated neighborhood establishment. He’s often seen around the downtown Lincoln Avenue venue; that’s recently including his appearance at the opening of Willow Glen’s Farmers’ Market, where he made a food presentation and offering. It’s all in his attempt to draw you into an experience of well-made, lovingly prepared foods.
Walking back down towards the end of the strip towards Minnesota and Lincoln Avenues, Vin Santo always has open doors and windows to the sidewalk. It’s an invitation to relax, especially during spring and summer months. This is the building that was once Willow Glen’s original firehouse, back when the neighborhood was its own city. Whereas once there were large doors to allow a fire truck, generations later there’s a restaurant with a large entry and bay windows, allowing for the pleasantry of “al fresco” dining. Inside, you can watch the world pass by, but pictures hang on the wall showing how much that world has changed, including the building itself. It’s a reminder that just down the street is the old Buffington House, where the old Fire and Police chief lived… back when the “chief” wore two hats! Umberto stays with a chef hat; but, in fact, rented the space upstairs from the restaurant himself, for a while, recognizing its uniqueness.
Through those open doors, local vendors from nearby shops, as well as residents from around nearby blocks, often drop-in for Happy Hour at Vin Santo. They come see Chef Umberto for his truffle fries, polpettine (meatballs), pizzetta margarita (small pizza), crostini, bruschetta, and more. That’s not forgetting the beer and wine. They all-join-in and the musical scene begins.
You may just stay a while, find yourself having a fritto misto (rightfully done), lasagna (true Bolognese style)… first plates, salads, more pasta dishes, meats and fish, etc. The chef often makes fine desserts like millefoglie, and cannoli siciliani and treats like Nutella cake. There’s also a cheese plate, often including Lombardy region choices, if not others.
The chef offers a three-course tasting menu for $39 and a five-course chef tasting menu for $58. Weekly specials often include unique dishes of Italian specialty; but, now and then, Chef Umberto introduces his interpretations of California and regional American cuisine, among other culinary delights from the world.