John's maternal great-grandparents, Gianbaptiste and Virginia Ferrogiaro, arrived in Napa in the 1870's. They built and ran a boarding house and saloon on land they purchased from Giuseppe Ghisletta. The site, which included a restaurant and grill, still stands today on Soscol Street, better known as the Depot Hotel. Residing down the street in the now-oldest building in Napa, the Old Adobe, was Cayetano Juarez. One evening in 1883, while sitting at the bar at the Depot, and in the presence of Gian Ferrogiaro, Cayetano Juarez passed away. To this day, the same bar remains at the Depot Hotel.
A home's renovation -- and connection to malfatti
Patti L. Cowger
Apr 12, 2019
Who wouldn’t want to hear the words, “Your grandmother would be so proud”? They were said by Napa native, Ernest Rota, to his daughter, Leslie. He was referring to the recent completion of their family home’s renovation. It’s a saltbox style home located on a picturesque street in one of Napa’s historic neighborhoods. The house was built sometime in the late 1800s (records date only to 1900). It was purchased by Ernest’s parents in 1935. His father, Camillo, an Italian immigrant from Bergamo, had previously boarded at the Depot Saloon after serving in the United States military during World War I. At the time, the Depot was also a boarding house and grill — and where Camillo met his future wife, Aurelia Varni, who was employed as a waitress.
Much has been written about The Depot over the years, and I mention it again because of an interesting connection to the Rotas’ renovation. The Depot was originally built and established by Giovanni Battista (aka Giobani) and Virginia (Tornari) Ferrogiaro. On Oct. 5, 1881, they purchased the 6,000 square-foot lot that had previously been the site of the Washington Hotel (formerly known as the Ghisletta Hotel) before it burned down.
Besides being the place where Cayetano Juarez died (while sitting at the bar in 1883), the Depot is known for its malfatti. Virginia, a native of Corbesassi in the Lombardia region of Italy, introduced malfatti to the Depot. This may be a surprise to some, but this savory dumpling is a signature recipe in Lombardia. When I say “recipe” I mean “a handful of this and a-little of that.” Is Virginia’s malfatti the same that we enjoy today? Maybe.
In 1925, Joseph and Theresa Tamburelli purchased the Depot from Virginia. (Giobani passed away in 1890). Did Virginia pass down her malfatti recipe to Theresa? Maybe. Did Theresa, also a native of Italy, have a recipe of her own? Maybe. There are hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of malfatti recipes throughout Italy. Some are made of herb, cheese, and breadcrumbs. Some are spinach, cheese and flour. And some are just rolled pasta dough cut in a haphazard (or bad) way. “Mal fatto” translates as “badly made.”
Fortunately for us, Theresa shared a malfatti recipe with Clemente Cittoni when he became part-owner and chef at The Depot. It may be Virginia’s original recipe or it may be Theresa’s version. In either case, we can pick up an order at Clemente’s Italian Takeout at Val’s Liquors on Third Street. Or, we can order a variation from Lawler’s Liquors on Jefferson Street, once owned by Theresa’s sister, Rose Martini.
This stroll down Napa history lane sets the stage for the connection I referred to earlier. In 2016, when helping Leslie with a design update for the Claffey and Rota Funeral Home, she asked if I could recommend an architect. I thought of Kevin Zeller from Zero Ten Design. Sadly, that same year, the Rota family suffered the loss of Ernest’s son, Bob.
Bob had purchased and lived in the family home since 1974. The funeral home project was put on hold and the renovation of Bob’s home began. Leslie and her daughter, Suzanne, (who would become the new owner), asked Kevin to draw plans and hired contractor, Rick Leonard, to implement them.
In writing today’s story, I am reminded of how small a town Napa once was. Giobani and Virginia Ferrogiaro’s great-great-grandson (Kevin) became the architect for Camillio and Aurelia’s great-granddaughter (Suzanne). If it wasn’t for The Depot, we would not only be deprived of malfatti, but the Rotas may never have met. They would never have bought their treasured home, and I would never have had the pleasure of helping them restore it, write about it, and also dig deeper into the history of Napa’s malfatti.
If you think this is serendipity in its finest form, there’s even more. It was Bob Rota who first contacted me to help with the funeral home because he was a fan of my weekly column in this Home & Garden section. I only wish he could read what I’ve written today.