Channeling Little Italy with the Pisoni Family

Channeling Little Italy with the Pisoni Family
Photo by Katie Newburn

Descended from Swiss-Italian immigrants, Eddie and Jane Pisoni began farming vegetables in the Salinas Valley in 1952. Their son Gary planted vines on the family cattle ranch in the 1980s—the passionate pioneer of Pinot Noir in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Today, his sons Mark (vineyard manager) and Jeff (winemaker) operate Pisoni Vineyards & Winery. The family produces wines under the Pisoni Estate and Lucia labels, with fruit sourced from the Pisoni, Soberanes and Garys’ vineyards (the latter two farmed in partnership with Gary Franscioni).

Most Sundays, four generations of Pisonis dine around a long (very long) table at either the vineyard or house in Gonzales belonging to Jane, the 88-year-old matriarch. Festivities center on Jane’s specialty: steaming cauldrons of cioppino (chuh-PEE-no), a zesty fish and seafood stew popularized by early Italian immigrants in San Francisco. Thanks to the piscine plenty of Monterey Bay, fresh catch here is a given.

“The meal brings back the notion that when anybody pops in, you can sit down and enjoy each other,” says Susan Pisoni Tavernetti, Jane’s daughter. “The food is good, but it’s really about the company.”

The Menu

“Dungeness crab, prawns and clams are at the heart of the cioppino,” says Susan. The Pisonis modify the recipe depending on what fish is available—Monterey Bay crab season runs mid-November to mid-June. The Pisonis serve salad along with the cioppino—acid from the dressing offsets richness of the fish.

Antipasti (cheese, home-canned vegetables, homemade salumi)
Pane (homemade bread)
Lemon meringue pie

Recreate the Region

The Décor

On cold days, the family dines at Jane’s house where she uses china that belonged to her mother-in-law, Esther. “The dishes are more than 100 years old,” Susan adds. “They have family value—they allow that grandmother to
be with us at the table.”

If dining at the vineyard, the Pisonis use white ware with deep bowls. Small seafood forks help pry every bit of crabmeat from shells.

Kids decorate bibs made out of butcher paper while awaiting the meal. “Cut rectangles with U-shaped holes for the neck,” Mark explains. “Use Sharpie-type markers if kids are bigger and you can trust them; otherwise, they decorate them with crayons. Punch holes and tie with string in back.”

The Playlist

No music—everyone’s too busy chatting. “As dinner goes on we get even louder,” Mark says. “It’s really fun.”

The Drinks

Riedel Burgundy glasses are the family go-to choice—they use them for all wine varietals.

The family loves to have a wide range of beverage options to accommodate their multi-course menu. To start, the Pisoni’s prefer a rosé with their antipasti, like their Lucy Rosé from the Santa Lucia Highlands or a Provencal selection from Triennes. For the cioppino, the family opts for a Pinot Noir, like their Lucia Garys’ Vineyard bottling or Dehlinger Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. Chardonnay makes for a lovely companion to the lemon meringue pie for dessert, and they look to their Lucia Soberanes Vineyard selection or the Peter Michael Chardonnay from Knights Valley.

Jane also adores sparkling wine and Champagne. The Pisonis often pop the cork on bottles from their neighbor, Caraccioli Cellars.

Jane Pisoni’s Cioppino

¼ – ¹⁄³ cup olive oil
3–6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ cup Italian parsley, chopped
2 each medium onions, chopped
6 stalks celery with tops, chopped
4 28-ounce cans organic whole peeled tomatoes (with basil, if desired)
2 14.5-ounce cans organic stewed tomatoes
2 8-ounce cans tomato purée or tomato sauce
2–3 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon basil
1 tablespoon marjoram
1 cup dry fino Sherry
Salt and pepper to taste
2 dungeness crabs (cleaned, cracked)
½ pound cod or sea bass, de-boned and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 pounds prawns (shelled, deveined)
2 dozen clams
1 dozen scallops (optional, cut in half if large ones)

Heat the olive oil in a heavy kettle. Sauté the garlic, parsley, onion and celery for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce and purée, and mushrooms. Season with bay leaves, basil, marjoram, Sherry, and salt and pepper. Cover and simmer at least an hour (whole tomatoes must break down into sauce).

Add the crab, fish and prawns to the sauce. Simmer for another hour.

Scrub clamshells well. Steam in a little water with a garlic clove and parsley to open the shells. Strain some of the liquid into the sauce. Add the scallops and clams in their shells shortly before serving. Serves 8.

Pane (bread)

6 cups organic, unbleached white flour (divided)
1¾ cups boiling water
1 each package active dry yeast
1½ cups warm water
1 tablespoon salt

Place 2 cups of the flour in a large bowl and pour the boiling water over it. Let the mixture sit for 5 minutes, then mix to make sure there are no dry spots. Cover with a damp dishtowel and let sit overnight.

The next day, proof the yeast in the warm water according to package instructions. Add the yeast mixture to the flour-and-water mixture. Sprinkle in the salt. Stir and then beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until somewhat smooth. Add the remaining 4 cups of flour, a handful at a time, until the dough is smooth and satin-like. Knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes on a floured wooden surface. Cover the dough and let rise about 1½ hours, until doubled.

Shape the dough into a round loaf by flattening it and folding the edges into the middle. Seal the seams with the heel of the hand. Let the loaf rise for 30 minutes. Then flatten the loaf with your hands to half its original height. Flip it over onto a well-floured surface. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Put the loaf directly on a baking stone or baking tray. Bake 45-50 minutes, until the golden crust sounds hollow when tapped. Shut off the oven and let the bread remain inside for 5 minutes to develop the crust. Serve warm with cioppino.Makes 1 round, 2-pound loaf of bread.

Lemon Meringue Pie

For the pie dough:

2¼ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup shortening
½ egg, beaten (save remainder in refrigerator for another use)
¼ cup ice water (approximate)
1½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Preheat an oven to 475°F.

Sift together the dry ingredients. Cut in the shortening. Pour egg into a liquid measuring cup. Add enough ice water to make ¼ cup. Add the lemon juice. Gradually add remaining liquid to the flour-and-shortening mixture. Don’t overwork. Gather dough together into a ball.

Use half of the dough in the ball. Roll out on floured board. The dough may be temperamental (due to the weather and humidity) and may need to be pieced together. Ease into a 9-inch pie pan. Trim edges with scissors, leaving ½-inch overhanging the pan. Fold extra pastry back and under, building a high-fluted edge. Hook the points of the fluted edge under the pan to help prevent shrinkage while baking. Prick the bottom and sides of the pastry to prevent puffing during baking. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown.

This makes two single-crust pie shells. Any leftover dough can be frozen for another use.

For the 9-inch pie filling:
1½ cups sugar
⅓ cup cornstarch
1½ cup water
3egg yolks, slightly beaten
3 tablespoons butter
¼cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons lemon rind, grated

For the meringue:
4 egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
8 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Mix the sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan. Gradually stir in water. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and boils. Boil one minute. Gradually stir at least half the hot mixture into the egg yolks, being sure not to cook the eggs.  Whisk the egg yolk mixture back into the sugar and cornstarch in the saucepan. Boil 1 minute longer, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Continue stirring until smooth and thick. Blend in the butter, lemon juice and lemon rind. Pour into baked pie shell. Immediately pile meringue over the filling.

For the meringue:

Beat egg whites with cream of tartar until frothy. Gradually beat in sugar. Whisk until stiff and glossy and all the sugar is dissolved. Do not underbeat. Beat in vanilla. Pile meringue onto hot pie filling, sealing the meringue onto the edge of the crust to prevent shrinking and weeping. Swirl the top of the meringue with a spoon or spatula or pull up points to decorate the pie. Bake 8 to 10 minutes until the meringue turns a delicate brown.

Published on November 18, 2015
Topics: California Travel GuideHosting Guide