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Danville Nights

Incontro Ristorante adds another layer to the hopping downtown scene.


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Photography by Cindy Chew

It’s a few minutes before 11 p.m., and I’m walking down Danville’s Front Street on a chilly Saturday, heading to my car after dining at Incontro Ristorante. We hadn’t closed the place down, but by the time we left, the busy bar had cleared, and there were only a few hangers-on in the main dining area—couples engaged in easy conversation.

But walking down East Prospect Ave., which is really more of a backstreet, the town’s still rockin’. As I walk by That Bar, the keyboardist hammers out John Fogerty’s “Centerfield,” with the bar crowd yelling out “I’m ready to play—to-day” with each chorus. 

Next door, but tucked well off the street, is Wild Vine Hideaway, another live music and food venue. I stick my head in just in time to hear the pianist warble “Wish You Were Here.” I’m ready to head home, but it’s clear I could stretch out the evening in any number of ways.

Randy Negi has watched Danville’s restaurant scene evolve since 2004, the year he took over Bridges. While Negi says Danville is still perceived as a sleepy town, the reality has changed. Not only has the addition of restaurants like the Peasant and the Pear, Amber Bistro, and Esin raised the culinary bar, but the accessible food and live music available at newer, more casual spots is drawing out a younger demographic. In fact, Bridges had its best year ever in 2011, due in no small part to all-night happy hour specials (Monday–Friday) and servers who now roll up their sleeves.

“I see more nightlife than before,” says Negi.

There’s a real gathering spirit at places like Wild Vine, That Bar, and Bridges’ upscale wine bar, The Vine (which stays open until midnight Thursday–Saturday and where I would later spot three or four couples grooving to a little R&B). The music there seems more of an excuse, rather than the point, of hanging out. Just down the street, the flashy new tasting room, AuburnJames, serves up charcuterie, artisanal cheese, and small plates, along with the Livermore winery’s full selection of wines.

“Danville is such a great little downtown, with all the foot traffic, and it picks up in the evenings before and after dinner,” says AuburnJames’ Matthew Ospeck. “It has been great. It’s exceeded our expectations.”

They are all modern-day fire pits of a sort—a place to go to rub shoulders and get warm—which is why the new Incontro, with its authentic Italian fare and real-life fire pits, seems such a perfect fit.

Incontro completed its move from a smaller out-of-the-way location in San Ramon to the heart of Danville in September, and the restaurant's Gianni Bartoletti seems to have done it at an auspicious moment—just as the town’s nightlife is taking off.

Bartoletti gutted an historic home, which previously housed La Ultima Mexican restaurant for more than three decades, and with its inviting exterior complete, Incontro boldly announces itself to Danville. On my visit, the dinner was very good, especially starters such as the smoky strips of eggplant on a roasted pepper sauce and a clean presentation of prosciutto and mozzarella. The salads really shined: Lightly dressed almost micro arugula sweetened with fresh corn and Reggiano; and a baby spinach salad with toasty almonds and creamy goat cheese. Entrées of crisped duck breast; rich ruby tuna with bitter greens; and moist, pancetta-wrapped chicken were well executed but made more enjoyable just by the feel of the place: warm, happy, like a crowded holiday dinner.

The food is more upscale than at That Bar, of course, but the energy is equally palpable, with busy waiters weaving through chatty parties small and large. We stretched out each course as long as possible, soaking in the atmosphere, which may last even later once Incontro’s full liquor license is approved (expected by February 1).

Bartoletti, who also lives in Danville, seems thoroughly contented to have finally relocated downtown, despite the increased pressure and competition. And he’s eager to do whatever it takes to become a fixture in this town—a town giving Walnut Creek some competition as Contra Costa’s best gathering place.

“You look around and see all the businesses and restaurants, and we just thought we would be a great fit here,” says Bartoletti. “It’s nice to feel like you’re part of something, part of a community, and now we are. We’re finally where we always wanted to be.”
 

Incontro, 455 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 820-2349, incontrodanville.com.

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