Written and produced by Stephen Exel
Photographs by John Granen
It’s Michael Chiarello’s Big Night. The renowned California chef (he’s also a restaurateur, author, TV star, vintner, and winner of multiple James Beard awards) and his wife, Eileen, are showcasing their deep affection for film, wine, and food with a screening party at their St. Helena home in honor of the coming Napa Valley Film Festival.
The party has been carefully planned: There’s popcorn in specially designed bags; plenty of munchies in Michael’s signature Italian style; and the table is set with film props. Three short films have been matched to wines, discussion points considered, and ballots are ready for voting.
“The filmmaking world is infatuated with what we do,” says Michael, who created Tra Vigne restaurant in St. Helena in 1997 and opened Bottega in Yountville in 2008. “We are just as fascinated by what they do. Film is ‘motion art.’ Food engages a different part of the brain. At the end of the festival, both groups have shared stories.”
Storytelling is an integral part of Michael’s character. His six books (the latest is Michael Chiarello’s Bottega) don’t just contain recipes—they are peppered with personal narratives and family history.
The St. Helena home Michael and Eileen share with their 7-year-old son Aiden is strongly connected to the chef’s personal history. The California native, who also has three daughters, looked to his grandfather’s Mount Shasta ranch to provide inspiration for the airy floor plan. Stones quarried on the ranch form the house’s foundation; the powder rooms are paneled with the ranch’s barn siding. Plants from cuttings from -Michael’s mother’s garden dot the property.
It’s a fitting setting for celebrating a similar story-based medium—the party is a tasty combination of Julie & Julia meets Sideways meets Babette’s Feast. As Michael puts finishing touches on the food, Eileen tends to the table setting and flowers.
Interaction with guests is essential to the Chiarellos’ entertaining style. The kitchen is designed to be the center of the house. Two stoves plus a wood-burning oven make it convenient to divide cooking responsibilities and entice everyone with both aromas and sights. “We let the evening flow pretty freely,” Eileen says. “We like to get people engaged with the food.”
A consummate restaurateur, Michael always assigns someone to help with the wine. “I hate to see an empty glass,” he jokes. There is usually sparkling wine—Eileen is a collector of vintage champagne. “Because it’s Napa, people show up with great wines,” Michael adds.
Brilliantly combining wine and film “is about finding the gestalt of the film and the wine and understanding their stories,” notes Eileen. Matching the food with wines involves the same process, plus adding the element of taste.
If you’re hungry for some intellectual nourishment at your party, “invite a group of storytellers,” Michael says. “The discussion will quickly get past the small talk of our lives. Movies prompt an individual point of view from everyone. The conversation will be evocative and personal.”
Michael chooses movie munchies that can be prepared in advance or finished off quickly during the party. “The food doesn’t have to thread together like a menu,” he says. “Choose items that are easy to eat, can be enjoyed together, but stand alone.”
Make-ahead appetizers start with Pesto Arancini—rice balls stuffed with melty mozzarella and served with garlic- and oregano-laced tomato sauce. “Cooked rice or leftover risotto can be used for this recipe,” Michael says. “It’s a very old-world dish that speaks to the frugal-mindedness of southern Italians.” For an extra layer of flavor, Michael mixes the rice with pesto.
When Michael’s daughter Gianna asked for wings for her 16th birthday party, he complied by bringing good technique and adult perspective to a familiar food—Chicken Wings Agrodolce (sweet and sour). These tender wings sport both flavors, plus a nice bite of heat from Calabrian chiles.
Eileen inspired Michael to create Prosciutto-Wrapped Truffle Fries, an appetizer she and her girlfriends could enjoy in a few bites. Rich but familiar, the indulgent little bundles can be paired with succulent fresh figs torn apart with your fingers. (Have plenty of napkins on hand!)
After the screenings, guests gather to rate the films and enjoy Forever-Roasted Pork with Toasted Cocoa Rub. Pork shoulder surrounded by pears, apples, and lemons has been slow roasting at a low temperature for 6 to 8 hours, filling the house with incredible aromas. The temptation to pull a piece of the fork-tender meat off with your fingers is overwhelming. That’s just what Michael has planned, so he hands out small tongs, and everyone digs in.
Eileen puts out a sweet or two, and another glass of wine is poured. It’s a Hollywood ending, full of camaraderie and community. You can almost see the credits start to roll across a star-strewn sky.
Eileen Chiarello uses vintage film canisters and reels to decorate the table. Many serving pieces are from Michael’s NapaStyle shop.
Glass-backed cabinets allow sunlight to pour into Michael and Eileen’s kitchen. The space opens to the dining and living rooms, creating a hub for gatherings.
The Chiarellos love to serve this classic Italian cocktail, supposedly invented by a count in 1919, to get the party started.
• 1 ounce dry gin
• 1 ounce sweet vermouth
• 1 ounce Campari
• Ice cubes
• 1 orange slice for garnish
Pour gin, vermouth, and Campari into heavy tumbler half-filled
with ice. Stir vigorously until outside of glass feels ice-cold to the touch. Strain into martini glass; gently drop orange slice into drink. Makes 1 drink.
Chicken Wings Agrodolce
The Fritti Flour and Agrodolce Sauce can be prepared one day in advance.
• 1 cup Arborio rice
• 1 cup semolina pasta flour
• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• 2 tablespoons salt (sea salt is too heavy for this blend)
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 2 cups champagne vinegar
• 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
• 1 cup finely chopped red onion
• 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted
• 1/4 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
• 1 teaspoon Calabrian chile (pepperoncini), or 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
• 2 cups chopped yellow onions (about 2 large onions)
• 1 cup chopped carrots
• 1 cup chopped celery
• 8 cups cold water
• 10 whole black peppercorns
• 1-1/2 tablespoons gray sea salt or kosher salt
• 1 fresh thyme sprig or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
• 2 (2-pound) packages chicken wings (about 16 total), cut apart at
joints, wing tips discarded
• Corn, peanut, canola, or any neutral oil for deep-frying
• 2 cups buttermilk
In blender, grind rice until very fine, about consistency of powdered gelatin. Shake ground rice into large bowl. Add semolina, all-purpose flour, table salt, and pepper. Toss until well mixed.
In large saucepan, combine vinegar and sugar. Bring to boil over high heat, stirring constantly to dissolve sugar. Stir in onion, fennel seeds, and salt. Simmer, uncovered, until it reaches consistency of maple syrup and coats back of wooden spoon, about 50 minutes. (You should have about 1 cup sauce.) Remove from heat and stir in Calabrian chile. Taste; add more chile for more heat. Set aside.
TO MAKE CHICKEN:
In 6- to 8-quart Dutch oven or pot, combine onions, carrot, celery,water, peppercorns, salt, and thyme. Bring to boil over high heat. Simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes.
Add chicken. Simmer, covered, 30 minutes. Remove from heat. Let chicken stand in liquid until cool, about 30 minutes. (See Chef’s Note below.**)
In heavy saucepan or deep-fat fryer heat 3 inches oil to 375°F. Meanwhile, pour buttermilk into shallow bowl. Pour about 2 cups of Fritti Flour in another shallow bowl.
Dip each chicken piece into buttermilk. Roll in Fritti Flour to coat. Cook about 6 coated chicken pieces at a time in hot oil until crust is just slightly darker than color of honey all the way around, about 4 to 6 minutes. Using tongs, transfer chicken from oil to Agrodolce Sauce; coat chicken evenly. Shake off excess; transfer wings to serving plate. Repeat to cook remaining chicken. Serve hot. Makes 12 to 16 servings (about 32 pieces).
Don’t halve the Fritti Flour recipe. We’ve found it takes at least 1 cup of Arborio rice for the blender to grind the rice properly. Make the full recipe and store any leftovers in the freezer in an airtight container for up to 6 weeks.
Don’t be in a hurry to pull the chicken from its cooking liquid. If you let the chicken cool in the liquid, it will absorb the liquid and stay tender and juicy. If you pull the chicken out before the liquid is cool, the chicken will be dry.
Prosciutto-Wrapped Truffle Fries
• Corn, peanut, canola, or any neutral oil for deep-frying
• 1-1/2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into French fry-size pieces (cut into 1/3-inch-thick lengthwise slices and then into
1/3-inch-wide sticks), or good-quality frozen fries, such as Alexia's 
• 1 tablespoon snipped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
• 1 teaspoon truffle oil
• 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
• Sea salt, preferably gray salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 8 slices very thinly sliced prosciutto
• 8 fresh figs (optional)
Preheat oven to 300°F. In heavy, deep, 4-quart saucepan or fryer, heat 3 inches of oil over high heat until it registers 375°F. Pat potatoes dry to prevent splattering.
In 8 batches, carefully fry potatoes until crisp and golden brown, about 4 minutes. Using wire skimmer or slotted spoon, carefully remove fries from hot oil; transfer potatoes to paper towels to drain. Keep fries warm in baking pan in oven while frying remaining potatoes. If using frozen fries, prepare according to package directions.
In heatproof bowl, toss hot fries with parsley and truffle oil. Add Parmesan; toss once more. Taste; season with salt and pepper.
Spread slice of prosciutto on work surface. Gather up small bundle of fries as if you were gathering pencils to put in a jar. Place fries on prosciutto so bottom half of fries will be enfolded when you wrap up bundle. Tear each fig (if using) into four sections.
Serve bundles with torn figs; serve warm. Makes 8 servings.
CHEF’S NOTE: The truffle fries alone, without the prosciutto wrap, are outstanding. Try different seasonings: Use just herbs, or just cheese, or flavored oils such as basil oil paired with dried Jack cheese, smoked paprika oil with Manchego cheese, or orange oil with sage. This is a good recipe to experiment with flavor combinations because fries are inexpensive and easy to make.
Arancini are small stuffed and fried rice balls. They are one of Italy’s original street foods. Leftover risotto can be used in place of the cooked Arborio; in fact, using leftover rice was at least partly responsible for the origin of the dish. Purchased pesto and a favorite tomato sauce can be used in place of the Blanched-Basil Pesto and the Quick Tomato Sauce, but it’s useful to have good pesto and tomato sauce recipes on hand.
• 3 cups cooked, cooled Arborio rice*
• 1-1/2 cups Blanched-Basil Pesto (recipe follows)
• 4 ounces fresh mozzarella, preferably bocconcini, cut into 16 pieces
• 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
• 2 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
• Corn, peanut, canola, or any neutral oil for deep-frying
• Quick Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)
Line platter with parchment paper. In large bowl, stir rice and pesto together until combined. Divide rice into 16 equal portions (about 1/4 cup each).
Press one portion of rice around each piece of mozzarella, forming a ball about 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Gently place on prepared platter. Repeat to form 16 arancini. Place platter in freezer 30 minutes to allow balls to firm up.
While rice balls chill, set up dredging station: Place flour into shallow bowl, eggs into another shallow bowl, and panko into third shallow bowl.
In large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat 3 inches of oil over medium-high heat until it registers 375°F on deep-fat thermometer. While oil heats, dredge each rice ball in flour and lightly shake off excess. Dip each rice ball in egg, then in panko. Gently lower 4 balls into hot oil; cook until lightly browned, 60 to 90 seconds. (Don’t overcook or cheese will leak out into oil.) Using slotted spoon or wire skimmer, transfer arancini to paper towels to drain. Repeat with remaining arancini.* Serve at once with Quick Tomato Sauce, if desired. Makes 16 arancini.
*CHEF’S NOTE: If you like, you can fry the arancini the day before, refrigerate overnight, and reheat with great success. To reheat, bake in shallow baking pan in 375°F oven 10 to 15 minutes or until heated through.
• 6 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves
• 2 cups lightly packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
• 1 cup olive oil
• 2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted*
• 2 teaspoons minced garlic
• 1 teaspoon fine salt, preferably ground sea or gray salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1/4 teaspoon powdered ascorbic acid
• 2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Set up large bowl of ice water. Fill large pan or Dutch oven about 2/3 full of water; bring to boil. Place basil and parsley leaves in sieve or colander that fits inside pan. Lower sieve full of herbs into boiling water; push leaves under water so they cook evenly. Blanch 15 seconds, then transfer sieve to ice bath to stop cooking process. Let herbs cool in the ice bath 10 seconds. Remove sieve, let drain. Squeeze any water that you can from herbs. Transfer to cutting board and coarsely chop.
In blender, combine herbs, oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, pepper, and ascorbic acid. Process until well blended and somewhat smooth. Add cheese; whir a few second until just combined. Transfer pesto to bowl; season to taste with additional salt and pepper, if necessary. Press plastic wrap directly onto pesto to keep it from turning brown. Store in refrigerator up to 1 week, or freeze up to 1 month. Makes 2-1/2 cups amount.
*TIP: Toast pine nuts in small dry skillet over low heat, shaking pan frequently. Heat 1 to 2 minutes; as soon as you smell fragrance of pine nuts, slide nuts out of pan and onto a plate to prevent burning.
Quick Tomato Sauce
• 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes, such as San Marzano
• 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
• 1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
• 1 bay leaf
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 1/4 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and chopped
• 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano
Open can of tomatoes; pour off juice into bowl. Press against tomatoes to extract as much juice as possible. Place tomatoes in separate bowl. Using your hands, squeeze tomatoes to pulp. Reserve juice and pulp. Set empty can aside.
Heat oil in large, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat until hot. Add onion to pan; cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook briefly until light brown, about 30 seconds. Add tomato juice; bring to boil. Simmer, uncovered, 2 minutes. Add crushed tomato pulp. Rinse remaining pulp out of can by filling it halfway with water (about 1 cup); add water to pan. Add bay leaf, and salt and pepper to taste; return to boil. Add dried tomatoes and stir. Lower heat to medium; simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, until mixture thickens and reduces to about 2-1/2 cups, about 50 minutes. Add oregano halfway through cooking. Discard bay leaf before serving.* For smoother sauce, process with immersion blender to desired consistency. Makes 2-1/2 cups.
*STORAGE: Store any remaining sauce in refrigerator up to 3 days. Serve over hot cooked pasta.
Salsa Di Parmigiano (“Parm Dip”)
This slightly garlicky (and addictive) dip is a favorite at Bottega, Michael’s restaurant.
• 1/2 pound Parmesan cheese, not too dry
• 1/2 pound Asiago cheese, not too dry
• 2 tablespoons chopped green onion
• 2 teaspoons minced garlic
• 2 teaspoons dried oregano
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
• 1-1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil
Remove any rind from cheeses. Chop cheeses into rough 1-inch chunks. Pulse cheeses in food processor until reduced to size of fine pea gravel. Transfer cheese to bowl. Stir in green onion and garlic. Add oregano, rubbing between your fingers to release its fragrance. Add black pepper, red pepper flakes, and olive oil. Stir well. Cover; let stand at room temperature at least 4 hours before serving. Serve on crostini. Makes 3-1/2 cups.
Forever-Roasted Pork with Toasted Cocoa Rub
Slow roasting in a low-temperature oven makes this party main course a fuss-free endeavor. Start the pork shoulder in the morning, then leave it alone. There’s nothing to do once you’ve put the pork shoulder in the oven—just check every once in a while to maintain the water level in the roasting pan.
• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
• Gray sea salt and freshly ground pepper
• 1-1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh sage
• 1/2 cup water
• 1 (4 pound) boneless pork shoulder roast
• 1/4 cup Toasted Cocoa Rub (recipe follows)
• 2 apples, cored and quartered
• 2 pears, cored and quartered
• 3 lemons, halved
Preheat oven to 275°F. In large skillet heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and pinch of salt and pepper. Reduce heat; cook about 1 minute. Add sage; cook about 3 minutes or until onions are just getting tender. Add 1/2 cup water; bring to boil. Reduce heat; simmer, covered, 10 minutes or until onions are very tender. Uncover; simmer 2 minutes more or until onions are very soft and water is evaporated. Season well with salt and pepper.
Season pork well with Toasted Cocoa Rub. Arrange meat on rack in shallow roasting pan with onions, apples, pears, and lemons. Add 1 cup water to pan.
Roast, uncovered, 6 to 8 hours, or until meat is very tender, adding additional water (1/2 cup at a time) if pan is dry. If meat begins to get too dark, tent with foil last 2 or 3 hours. Roast is ready when meat pulls away easily if picked at with pair of tongs. Serve with any pan juices. Makes 12 to 14 (4-ounce) servings.
TOASTED COCOA RUB
• 1 tablespoon whole white peppercorns
• 1 tablespoon coriander seed
• 4-1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
• 1/4 cup sea salt (preferably gray)
• 3-1/2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
• 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
• 1 teaspoon ground cloves
Heat medium saucepan over medium heat. Add whole white peppercorns and coriander. Toast until spices begin to pop and smell fragrant, shaking saucepan occasionally. Remove from heat. Transfer to spice mill or coffee grinder. Grind to fine powder. In airtight container combine toasted ground spices with cinnamon, salt, cocoa powder, nutmeg, and cloves. Use 1/4 cup of mixture for Forever-Roasted Pork. Store remainder, covered, in cool dry place up to 3 months. Use to season beef or pork roast, or whole chicken.