Malfatti, The Dumpling That Became A Napa Valley Legend : The Salt Born of a "mistake," these dumplings have become a beloved staple of Italian restaurants in California's Napa Valley. They're packed with cheese, spinach and local Italian-American history.
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Malfatti, The Dumpling That Became A Napa Valley Legend

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Malfatti, The Dumpling That Became A Napa Valley Legend

Malfatti, The Dumpling That Became A Napa Valley Legend

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Of course, we all know the wine in Napa Valley is famous. But there's a local delicacy there you don't want to miss. Lisa Morehouse has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

JOANNE CITTONI: Dad, how many malfattis do we have?

LISA MOREHOUSE, BYLINE: At Val's liquor store in downtown Napa, there's a large industrial kitchen where the Cittoni family is at work.

CLEMENTE CITTONI: Tell them to come and bring the container.

MOREHOUSE: At the center of the scene is the patriarch Clemente Cittoni, who moved here from Lake Como, Italy, in the 1960s.

C CITTONI: And I'm still cooking at the age 78.

MOREHOUSE: After sauteing onions, spinach and a few other ingredients, Cittoni combines the mixture in a grinder before adding cheese and eggs - no measuring necessary.

C CITTONI: (Speaking Italian). A pinch here, a pinch there.

MOREHOUSE: Then the whole family gathers at a butcher block, pinching off bits of filling, rolling the dumplings by hand.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hey, bello, how you doing?

MOREHOUSE: Ray Guadagni's a retired judge and lifelong customer.

C CITTONI: (Speaking Italian).

MOREHOUSE: He grew up nearby in Napa's Little Italy, and he's become an amateur historian of the neighborhood. He explains it this way - in the 1860s, young, single, Italian men coming to work on the railroad lived in boarding houses here. Then, people fleeing a nearby natural disaster.

RAY GUADAGNI: It was a devastating earthquake to San Francisco in 1906, and that led to a lot of migration here.

MOREHOUSE: For decades, the town of Napa remained blue collar with people working in factories and orchards.

GUADAGNI: A lot of people were poor and didn't have money to go to dinner that often.

MOREHOUSE: But when they could, they visited the pride of Little Italy, the Depot Restaurant, opened in the 1920s by Theresa Tamburelli. As a little boy, Gaudagni fetched takeout there.

GUADAGNI: My mom would send me to the back door with a pot.

MOREHOUSE: A pot from her own cupboard and a note.

GUADAGNI: It would say the ravioli and the malfatti. And they would take it and bring it into the kitchen and...

MOREHOUSE: ...Fill up the pot and send little Ray Guadagni back home with dinner and a sloppy, wet kiss from the cook, Clemente Cittoni, who, by then, had taken over kitchen duties from Tamburelli.

C CITTONI: The lady that teach me was Mrs. Theresa Tamburelli. She's the one invented the famous pasta. It's called malfatti.

MOREHOUSE: Now, it's hard to prove malfatti was actually born here. Italy's Lombardy region boasts an oblong green gnocchi malfatti. And in Siena, they make gnudi, little balls made of ricotta and sometimes spinach. But Napa's malfatti benefits from a great origin story. A visiting baseball team planned to eat at the Depot Restaurant.

C CITTONI: Poor Mrs. Tamburelli, she forgot the reservation. So lucky she made extra filling of the ravioli.

MOREHOUSE: Clemente Cittoni and Ray Guadagni explain with too much filling and not enough dough, she rolled finger-sized dumplings.

C CITTONI: Like little meatball.

GUADAGNI: Looked like sausage or something. And that she served instead of the ravioli.

C CITTONI: She made a mistake so she name it malfatti.

GUADAGNI: Meaning it's a mistake or poorly made. People loved it.

MOREHOUSE: And malfatti became as ubiquitous here as spaghetti and ravioli. When the Depot Restaurant changed hands and the new owner cut corners, Cittoni quit. That's why he's making malfatti on his own terms out of a liquor store. It's an echo of a vanishing working-class Napa now better known for posh restaurants and expensive vacation homes. Cittoni says he won't live forever, but he hopes malfatti will.

C CITTONI: Hope my daughter and her family, they keep going because otherwise, Napa Valley going to miss a hell of a good dish.

MOREHOUSE: And miss that lesson that a mistake can become something legendary.

For NPR News, I'm Lisa Morehouse in Napa, Calif.

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