Happy 35th to Prima Ristorante
Diablo sits down with Prima owners Peter Chastain and John Rittmaster to talk about this history of this seminal Walnut Creek restaurant. Help them celebrate this May 1 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. with complimentary prosecco, wine and passed antipasti.
There's just something about Prima. Even if you're not into the white tablecloth end of the dining spectrum, there's a comfortable, familial, timeless quality that seems to permeate the interior of this classic Italian eatery. It's a feeling that can only happen with plenty of TLC over a significant period of time. And this May, the award-winning restaurant will celebrate 35 years of sustained dedication to providing top-quality food and wine, along with expert, but never stuffy, service.
To officially mark its 35th year in business, Prima is holding a party this Tuesday, May 1, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., with free prosecco, wine, and passed hors d'oeuvres to anyone who wants to drop by (call to RSVP at (925) 935-7780). Prior to the big bash, Diablo sat down with current owners, executive chef Peter Chastain and wine director John Rittmaster, to chat about the past, present, and future of this seminal Walnut Creek restaurant. 1522 North Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-7780, primaristorante.com.
Diablo: Prima first opened on May 13, 1977: can you tell me a little about its history?
John Rittmaster: The original owners were Michael Verlander, he had a background in corporate finance, and Janet, who was a caterer when they met.
Peter Chastain: Michael had been to a dinner put on by business associates, sort of a wine dinner, and had just been floored by this discovery that wine was so delicious. And I guess Janet was equally delicious to him, and they struck it up. She was a caterer and the two of them decided that what Walnut Creek really needed was a place where wine and cheese tasting could take place, where this pairing and sampling concept which was so popular in Europe at the time, could be showcased. At that time in California, there weren't that many places that were doing that. Wine had not really boomed the way it did subsequent to that. And this concept that you would sample these things and pair them—degustazione—was very unique.
JR: They decided to open this up as Walnut Creek Wine & Cheese. This was the front door [gesturing to one-fourth of the current Prima façade], it was a shoe box size, had wooden racks back there on the walls, it had wine and some case stacks in front, a glass cheese case, and the original bar.
This wasn't a restaurant to begin with?
PC: No, it was a wine and cheese retail venue with a tasting bar.
JR: It had a couple of tables and chairs in the back, and eventually they had something like a bunsen burner that they made soup on. It was pretty rustic, let’s put it that way. It was just the two of them at first, they didn’t get their first employee for like six months...
One of the important things in the beginning was Michael, audaciously, going after the just-beginning-to-boom Napa Valley wineries and getting them in here. There’s a lot of different wineries that got their start right around the same time, the most notable of them being Duckhorn. And Michael and Dan Duckhorn struck up a friendship and we sold the first vintage of Duckhorn’s high-end wines here for, as Michael likes to tell the story, $14 a bottle. And that was a princely sum for a bottle of Merlot in those days. Three Palms Merlot was the first vintage and it was a big deal. He talked Dan out of a whole lot of it, and made a lifetime guarantee with each other. Some of the other wineries were Silver Oak, Jordan, etcetera, all of these wineries got into business around the same time, and this became the place to get those things. And in those days there wasn’t a whole lot of wine geekiness, so that kind of set the table for what would happen later. And I think Michael deserves a lot of credit for his audacity at a time when everyone was selling $3, $4, $5 bottles of wine. That he could sell $14 bottles of wine in Walnut Creek in 1977 was impressive.
PC: Michael was brave and also relied on his palate to guide him. He’d put something in his mouth and said I like this and I think other people will like it too. That’s how we all do it, of course, but Michael did it with alacrity.
JR: He had good instincts and he backed them up, and that’s what he taught me and Peter, as well.
So when did it turn into a restaurant?
JR: Of vital importance to Prima was Michael and Janet's trip to Italy. This was Walnut Creek Wine & Cheese until they went to Piemonte in northwestern Italy on vacation in 1987. They went to the town of La Morra and ate at this particular restaurant called Belvedere and that changed everything. The Italian hospitality, the effortless hospitality, the way things flowed, the wine, the view, everything. Something clicked and they came back and changed Walnut Creek Wine & Cheese into Prima Café.
PC: We've talked a lot about Michael, but Janet also had this inherent sense of hospitality. She’s the original, take-care-of-you, good-earth-mother type maitre d'. But I think when they went to Italy, they were truly blown away by how infused the hospitality is into the culture. And Belvedere is a restaurant that, aside from having gorgeous world-class views and a treasure trove of wine, also has big high ceilings and big solid pillars and marble tables in the center of the restaurant. Where an American restaurant would have revenue-earning chairs, they had a table set up so they could serve you there. Just that kind of effort, that deep cultural effort to take care of people, I think is something that is part of the core values of Prima.
JR: So Prima became Prima café and then ultimately Prima Trattoria. There were also mini expansions along the way: what Prima is now used to be four or five different storefronts.
And Prima Ristorante?
PC: When I met the Verlanders in 1998 I was working at another restaurant and they invited me over to look at the place and said they want to change this from a homey trattoria to more of a ristorante, because all of these high-powered restaurants like Spiedini and Il Fornaio and Lark Creek Walnut Creek were moving in, but we don’t have that type of capital power. We can’t compete with their concepts at that price point, so we want to go up. We have the reputation but not the skill set. And I took one look around and said ‘you don’t have the décor either so call me when you’ve got a design.’ And they did, so Michael came up with and executed the design of our current venue within three months.
JR: As I said before, Michael had great instincts. And he always believed that you had to react, or pro-act to make sure that your business stayed relevant. People who just keep doing the same things over and over, they eventually become stale and I don’t think Michael ever wanted this place to become stale as long as he was running it. I think as Peter said, to stay ahead of the competition, he could have gone downscale, but his reaction was to go upscale, to go all in. And we did and we’ve never looked back, and that’s been a big decision for this restaurant.
Can you tell me a little about the changes you made with the food and wine when you two took over?
JR: When we changed to Prima Café, Michael tried to create this Italian sensibility—it’s always been sort of a motto—but with Napa an hour away, we sold a lot of California wine. But since I started, our goal has been to create a niche for ourselves with Italian wine and we’ve been very successful doing that. It goes best with our food, it goes best with our atmosphere, and it has proved to be profitable... We've also been a magnet for allocated wines and the cult wines of California, the cult wines of the world. The best stuff you could possibly find, people come here to find that, and that has been very much part and parcel of our overall business plan.
PC: Foodwise there were some real definite changes in America in about the mid '90s that everyone became aware of who was involved in Italian food. America had always kind of been separated into Italian immigrant food, mostly people from the south, lots of sauce, Sunday gravy and meatballs: there was this perception of Italian food that’s been around for a long time. And one of the things that happened in the mid-90s, The economy took a whole step up in Italy, so you started being able to get these great products—stuff like good pasta and risotto, famous estate brands of olive oil, real prosciutto from Parma—a lot of these things that were just not previously available. So we started to get products and they started to give birth to a whole genre of Italian cooks who were coming out of the California cuisine, the new American chef tradition with product-driven seasonal menus. The philosophy was let's buy good things and then stay out of its way.
So by the mid-90s, anyone who as involved in that was really looking to all these Italian products and going ‘wow.’ We started to really want to cook good Italian food. And I went to Japan to do it because Japan was ahead of the game, and then came back and when we opened Mazzini Trattoria for Alice Waters’ sister and brother in law. That was very much based on that philosophy. The place was designed by Berkeley craftsmen and it really looks like a trattoria that you’d find in Florence. We had Carol Fields in there vetting the menu to make sure everything was authentic. So a lot of the dishes I’m cooking today, are things we worked really hard to create back then. It was all food that was really clean and product based and central to northern Italian cooking. And Michael and Janet saw that and fell in love with Mazzini and wanted to bring that here.
JR: I remember the chef when I started here was an Italian gentleman who worked here in town for a long time and had two stints here at Prima before he left. He was southern Italian and made very traditional food: lasagna that was this big and weighed about six pounds. It was good...
PC: But it was Americanized. The artichokes came out of a can, the lobsters came out of a can. I remember when I first started in the kitchen I threw out, much to Michael’s chagrin, somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,000 worth of inventory. I tore out all of the refrigeration, because we didn’t want anything that wasn’t delivered within a day or two. So we’ve kind of stuck to those guns.
How about the atmosphere and vibe you're trying to create at Prima?
JR: There’s a lot of people that take themselves way too seriously in the wine business and in the food business as well; we don’t ever want to be guilty of taking ourselves too seriously. There’s some restaurants you can walk into in San Francisco, and I won’t name any names, but you just feel this air of gravitas when you walk in. We don’t wear, for example, neck ties next door at the wine shop: we’re Californian and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. But we know our [stuff] and communicate it with enthusiasm, we hope intimacy, professionalism, and maybe even a little bit of humor.
PC: We’re also not adverse to sitting down with a very expensive aged Barolo and eating a pizza with it. And I think that’s really key to our culture here, which also goes into the style of service. You have to know how serve technically but when you put that in people’s face it feels pretentious. So we try to be down to earth, sincere, and genuine: those are probably bigger things that we hire for than technical skill. We can train you how to pick up a plate and how to put one down and all that, but it's very difficult to train manners and consideration.
JR: Our staff here is just fabulous. Over the years, in 35 years, the people who have worked here have gone on to places all over the United States and have become great, great servers, chefs, cooks, and everything else. Prima has been, over the years, a real resume-builder for people who want to learn how to do it right before they go out and do it somewhere else. And we’re very proud of that.
You put on so many events and wine dinners throughout the year: why do you think you hold so many events?
JR: That’s a good question. I think we do it because, first of all, we enjoy doing it. And second of all, it’s a chance to enfranchise our customers and give them something different from the usual experience.
PC: There a number of reasons. First of all, a la carte menus are the bane of my existence. The concept that somebody comes in with this card, this list of stuff, that’s not chosen in any particular order: for instance, she says I’ll have the swordfish and he wants the braised lamb shank and he’s ordering the wine so its Pride Merlot, so she gets to drink merlot with her swordfish, which is icky, I’m sorry. And I’m not going to walk out to my clients and tell them what to eat and drink, that’s rude. So the events provide us with an opportunity to orchestrate something from a culinary point of view and give people something that’s planned and focused with our expertise involved. We want to give them those kinds of experiences, big or small.
JR: We do authentic, stylized Italian events like an evening in Tuscany or Piemonte or southern Italian seafood, or Provence, or Spain, Burgundy. We’ve done German wines, we’ve done Port. And we’re lucky enough that a lot of winemakers and people that are involved in our business like to come here. Over the years, we've had a who’s who of Italian wines here. Names like Angelo Gaja, Piero Antinori, Frescobaldi, etcetera.
So we like to do it, and we think it helps us in the long run, because if you have a great meal here and it goes really well with the wines, you’re more inclined to order our tasting menu or make a call up and have Peter do a chef’s table dinner for you. Ultimately, if we were given our druthers, we wouldn’t have any menu at all, it would just be organic and people would eat what we wanted to serve. But I think that would be a little ambitious [laughs].
How has the average diner's palate changed since you've been in Walnut Creek?
PC: I think since the mid-'90s, people have become more well-traveled and more exposed to different types of products. When I came here 12 years ago, I remember sitting back and eating like a kilo of grilled sardines with John, because we couldn’t sell a sardine. We'd ask people if they wanted to try the grilled calamari, and you’d immediately hear back ‘well, can you make it fried?’ Now our biggest selling lunch item is a grilled calamari dish with fennel. People love it and are willing to try stuff like octopus and all kinds of more adventurous food. I think with the average diner in Walnut Creek, the whole bar has been lifted by people that are probably more talented than us. Like right across the street, Modern China Café serves some pretty rockin’ Chinese food of the quality that you wouldn’t expect to see in most of Middle America. Places like Corners Tavern, those are very talented people coming to town. Rick Delamain doing his take on retro French down at Cypress, and Sam Castro over at Sasa, throwing really good product down. Michelle [Nguyen] at Élevé is one of the best Vietnamese cooks on the West coast without a doubt. So there’s a lot going on here, there’s a lot to be had here, and people are seeing it and trying it.
JR: Yes, believe me when I started selling wine here it was California, California, California. Now we’re selling things like Austrian reds and Hungarian whites, but they’re good. And that’s the key, searching out good stuff. If you sell wine for $9, or $90, it better be really, really good stuff. People have good palates here.
Any favorite memories?
JR: One of my favorite stories to tell is when Angelo Gaja was here. He’s hyper famous in wine circles, he’s one of the most famous Italian winemaker. I maybe shouldn't be telling this story but he decided that he was going to do a slideshow. And to make a long story short, he asked me to run upstairs to grab a slide for the projector to see if it works, and the slide was, shall we say, quite compromising. And I just remember Angelo saying, ‘well, maybe your slideshow will be more interesting than mine.’ [laughs] But we’ve had a lot of fun with a lot of winemakers that have come in over the years. We’ve had some very, very late nights back here.
PC: I’ll tell you about something unofficial that happened here one night that I’ll never forget. It was Valentine’s Day, which is always the most number of tickets that could ever hope to have in your worst nightmare. So they’re coming in two by two, it’s Noah’s Ark out there, we did almost 400 covers that night—and the computer broke in the middle. At that time, the general manager Mark Powell, took a cardboard box and set it up in front of the line and took all of the orders verbally and laid them all out on this cardboard box and we expedited Valentine’s Day service just between the two of us. And we actually ran the thing like clockwork and got the machine back up and running in time to bill the second turn. It was a total breakdown of all the systems that you take for granted, but then a real triumph that, without skipping a beat we were able to get the food out anyway.That was one of the defining moments for me at Prima, because I realized that we really are old school.
I also remember one day when [former executive chef] Kelly Degala first opened Va de Vi, we had all the Va de Vi people over late at night and things got loose. I remember it was about 2 a.m. in the morning and someone asked ‘anybody hungry?’ And everybody looks at each other and says ‘duh!’ So whoever the manager at Va de Vi was at the time walks back and gets an entire loaf of Italian bread, splits it with a knife, goes into the forno and pulls out braised lamb shanks, spreads it onto the bread, puts some mustard on it, puts it on top of the bar and slices it into sandwiches. Then everybody sat down and drank about magnum of wine. That was a memorable event and there have been a lot of those.
JR: All those stories seem to begin with the phrase ‘things got a little loose, and…’ [laughs]
We’re lucky enough to go to Italy whenever we can. I’m going in May—I try to go every year and Peter does too— and I think it’s important for us to understand how people eat and live and carry that back here. We don’t try to force it down your throats, but when people are receptive to it, this place can feel like you really have that atmosphere, that conviviality. To me, that’s when it feels like Prima is at its best, when the place is humming, it's full, and everyone is eating; there’s this low murmur and the servers are smiling, the cooks are smiling, the food is coming out and everyone is having a good time. To me, that’s the lifeblood of a restaurant like this.
Any big plans going forward?
PC: One of the things about the food, the service, and the wine that we do here, is that it is somewhat timeless. There are restaurants all over the world that you can walk into over a period of decades, where you can feel like you’re in touch with something that’s perennial. And I know it’s a popular cultural question: when are you going to do something new? When are you going to roll out something new? Well, I’m 54-years-old, and I would very much like to be 74-years-old and watching the dock back there and still serving guazzetto and calamari. It works now, it's been working, and I think it’ll work going into the future. I think people can look forward to upgrades on the tabletops, maybe a better-looking carpet when this one wears out, the sort of thing that any restaurant does. But beyond that, we just want to follow the seasons and continue to cook what’s relevant to people that comes out of the markets.
JR: We’re not empire builders, we’re not entrepreneurs my nature. I think he’s a cook and I’m a wine geek and we’re better at that than we are at running a business. By duplicating it, in our minds, it doesn’t mean that, a, we’d be more profitable, or, b, it would make this business any better or any stronger. Whenever anyone asks us why we haven’t expanded or 'I have this great spot for you': we just say ‘nooooo, I don’t think so.’
PC: We’ve literally had developers walk up and say we’ll give you the rent, we’ll back you. We've had opportunities to open in places like Oxbow [in Napa] and Berkeley, Oakland, Walnut Creek, Tahoe, Las Vegas, you name it. But the thing is, we have families and we work to live, we don’t really live to work.
JR: We’re not going to be people that die of heart attacks because of this place—or some new place.
PC: I made dinner and ate with my daughter for an hour yesterday, you know? That’s important to me, I don’t want to be standing there and slinging some new café, I’ve already done that.
So neither of you is too interested in the business side of things?
PC: I know for me, it’s a real struggle when I get all muddled up with the office and this and that. At some point I just need to get back in the kitchen. I didn’t do this as a businessman. If I wanted make money, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen the restaurant business.
JR: That’s certainly born itself out hasn’t it? [laughs]. But you make a lot of people happy and that’s what we’re in it for. Like the biggest reason for us to throw a party is to thank all the people who have been coming here for 35 years and supporting us, because they didn’t have to. You can buy wine anywhere, at Costco or Cost Plus, and there are tremendous food options everywhere. You can’t walk down the street in Lafayette, even Danville, and not find something good to eat. The fact that people are still coming here is really gratifying.
PC: It’s kind of a sustenance thing. You physically watch people walk away from the back and you go 'I put some of the fuel in that body that makes the cells move around.' That’s a nurturing thing. You know, I never dreamed I’d be here for this long. I’m a Berkeley boy, and I came out here and thought that we’d get this concept rolling and put everything in place and it’ll be a stepping-stone for the next job. And I just kind of fell in love with it out here.
JR: We’ve had a great run and we’re looking forward to doubling it. Although if we have a 70th anniversary, Peter and I better not be here! We might be at the 50th, though...