By Carey Sweet
Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do.
When Taverna Santi owner Doug Swett opened his new Diavola trattoria in Geyserville in July, he doubled his bets that the sleepy burg of just 2,100 souls and a couple dozen tractors would be a coveted destination for extraordinary Italian food.
And indeed, occupying a space that was the former Geyser Smokehouse just a few doors down from his acclaimed Santi (which means "saint"), Diavola (which means "devil") feels like a personal find. It's got the requisite components of charm: a rustic-chic bosom of scuffed hardwood floors, stark wood tables set with paper place mats, 100-year-old brick walls cut with archways and a gorgeous Virgin of Guadalupe statue above the bar that lights up in Christmas tree colors.
There are two long rooms side by side, but choose the first, where chef Dino Bugica hand-pulls pizza dough at a wood burning oven topped with a growling, tusked pig sculpture. Seating is scarce, and walk-ins can expect a substantial wait, scoring, if they're lucky, a perch at the bar beneath a curving meat rack dangling with old Smokehouse hooks and new Diavola salumi. House wine comes from a jug, but it's pleasant Hawkes Nero di Campo ($5 a tumbler), and once you settle in, you'll want to linger a good long time, nibbling on crisp, ultraskinny complimentary breadsticks served in parchment paper.
The food is reliably exquisite, particularly anything pizza. Bobbing like a boxer in front of his oven's flames, Bugica produces near-perfect crust, alternating the charred and golden, the crisp and pillowy. These aren't flimsy creations either, but generously decorated rounds like the salsiccia ($14) of housemade sausage chunks, red onion, flurries of white pecorino cheese shavings and delicious drips of honest piggy grease. For the Bagna verde ($15.50), juicy Lingurian clams and broccoli raab are laid out like a mosaic, laced with parsley, tomato, pecorino, herbs and a wallop of sharp garlic. A quattro formaggio ($13.50) is creamy and complex, marrying strong pecorino, mild mozzarella, cacio and grano with sage and green olives that really sings with a splash of chile oil. Yes, the pies are big, but it's better to be a glutton than to take it home; the crust is best when fresh.
Antipasti isn't for dainty appetites, either. A big bowl of shiny red beet chunks ($10.75) is summery gratification sweetened with sheep's milk ricotta, while seafood alla Diavola ($13.75) threatens to capsize its huge soup dish. Citrus-kissed squid looks like little purple and white troll dolls sprinkled with fresh herbs, tossed with curled shrimp, black-eyed peas, mushy-mild anchovies alla povera and buttery cannellini. It's almost too pretty to eat, but you'll manage.
When the waitress apologizes for the basil panne cotta ($6.75) not being perfectly set-up, it seems silly. The dessert may flop on the plate, but absolutely not in the mouth, with stunning creaminess, firm grilled peaches and a stab of lavender flower. Like everything on the menu, it's a good bet you'll finish every last bite.
Diavola, 21021 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville. Open for lunch and dinner, Wednesday–Monday. 707.814.0111.
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