A serious chef and the right regional ingredients bring new life to an old favorite
In recent months, colorful photographs of Bay Area farmers displaying their crops have adorned the walls of Danville’s Piatti, and a new logo has been splashed across the dining room and menu. It reads Piatti Locali. The restaurant’s name now means local plates, as opposed to simply plates, in Italian.
The new name might seem like a way to gussy up the 20-year-old 12-restaurant Piatti chain. But the Danville restaurant has been turning out some of the best California-Italian food in the Tri-Valley since it got a new chef a year and a half ago, even before the “go local” marketing effort began. And it’s true that many of the menu’s star ingredients do hail from small farms and ranches in Brentwood, Point Reyes, and elsewhere in the Bay Area.
“I enjoy getting up at the crack of dawn to search for the best possible ingredients,” says chef Michael Baker, a man of 39 with strawberry blond hair and boyish charm. His eyes light up like an eager puppy’s when he talks about produce. “I love the wild arugula and fresh herbs from Knoll Farms, the stone fruit and Asian pears from Frog Hollow, and specialty potatoes from Willey Farms.”
On a recent visit to Piatti Locali, my husband and I started with Baker’s popular bruschetta. To make it, he lightly grills thin slices of country bread until they are crisp on the outside, slightly soft within. In spring, he tops the toast with a creamy young cheese, Crescenza, from Bellwether Farms on the Sonoma Coast. Then he adds a few spears of roasted asparagus and a generous dash of white truffle oil. Often, bruschetta suffers because the bread is grilled until it’s too crisp and its charred flavor overpowers the toppings, but Baker achieves the perfect balance.
Farmers market strawberries are Baker’s muse in an inventive spinach salad that incorporates the juicy red berries, sliced into quarters, along with slivered Easter egg radishes, roasted pistachios, and crumbled young goat cheese. A citrus mint vinaigrette brings all the flavors together in a tangy union.
Petrale sole is another brightly flavored dish. “I get the fish fresh from Half Moon Bay,” Baker explains, “and after I remove the head and bones, I coat the fillet with a light egg wash and parmesan cheese, fry it until crisp, and serve it in a butter sauce with preserved Meyer lemons and capers.” The dish is irresistible: The flaky, tender fish is well accented by the zingy lemon and salty capers in the sauce.
It is not surprising that Baker turns out such delicious food. He received his culinary training at the prestigious Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, and refined his skills in top kitchens all over the country, including The Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, the Grill and Bar at Kapalua Resort (Baker lived in Hawaii for 10 years), and Waterfront Restaurant and Cafe in San Francisco. Before coming to the Danville Livery location, Baker worked at the Piatti restaurants in Yountville and Sonoma, and, according to management, business has increased in Danville since he arrived.
From the restaurant’s spacious, terra-cotta tiled dining room, you can see Baker and his team of hardy line cooks at work in the open kitchen. They put a wood-burning oven, grill, and gas range to good use preparing pizzas, pastas, poultry, and meats including the Niman Ranch flatiron steak, which is as thick and juicy as a filet mignon. In May and June, Baker serves the steak on a savory ragout of chanterelle mushrooms and organic spring onions, which he often purchases down the street at the Danville Farmers Market on Saturdays.
When I ordered the flatiron steak, our server recommended the reasonably priced Antinori Chianti Classico from the restaurant’s ample international wine list. It was good advice. The red wine’s dark berry flavors worked beautifully with the mushrooms. Piatti Locali also has a popular bar where the bartender might recommend a mandarin-infused Cosmopolitan to wash down the crispy fried Hog Island oysters, when they’re on the menu.
The professionalism of Piatti’s waitstaff is due in no small part to the steady hand of longtime general manager John Perkins. When my husband and I were running late for our reservation and arrived 10 minutes after the kitchen closed, rather than turning us away the host kindly seated us with the understanding that we would order quickly.
We thoroughly enjoyed our meal that night, which we topped off with Piatti’s signature dessert, the gelato balsamico, a fluted tuille filled with juicy strawberries and a scoop of rich, dense caramel gelato, which gets just the right tang from an infusion of balsamic vinegar. And I can still taste the bright flavor of our other dessert, a crisp of berries and rhubarb with a blanket of oatmeal and brown sugar streusel on top.
A gifted new chef and a renewed commitment to top-notch local ingredients have made Piatti live up to the locali addition to its name. It really is a local gem.
Contact: 100 Sycamore Valley Rd. W., Danville (in the Danville Livery),
(925) 838-2082, www.piatti.com
HOURS: Lunch Mon.–Sat., dinner daily, brunch Sun.
PRICE: Appetizers $6.95–$11.95. Entrées $13.95–$26.95.
ALCOHOL: Full bar
At A Glance
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL: A new, talented chef, Michael Baker, and the restaurant’s renewed commitment to buying local ingredients.
DON’T MISS: Baker’s Bellwether Farms ricotta gnocchi, which he accents with fava beans and peas in the springtime.
WHAT TO ORDER: Items on the menu marked with a red asterisk—they are new dishes and usually incorporate the most seasonal and locally grown ingredients.
THE SPACE: Piatti has a patio that’s a lovely spot for alfresco dining in the spring and summer, and a private dining room for 32.
WHEN TO GO: Business or ladies lunch, dinner date, with a large group anytime.
BONUS: Baker’s fritto misto includes Monterey Bay calamari, rock shrimp, and seasonal vegetables such as fennel.