Wood-Fired Up

Azzurro's seer-like transformation of downtown Napa

A decade ago, there was nowhere Michael and Christina Gyetvan wanted to eat in their hometown of Napa. Tired of driving to nearby St. Helena for good food, the chef and his wife decided to do something about it. So they borrowed money from their parents, ran up their credit cards, found an abandoned building in downtown Napa’s West End and opened Pizza Azzurro just one week after Sept. 11 in 2001.

“It was more of a necessity than a dream,” Michael tells me on a recent afternoon. “I was out of work at the time, not having any luck, and I needed a job.”

Despite the inauspicious timing of their opening, the Gyetvans so dazzled the local palate that when they closed for a week seven years later, to move to a bigger space, people talked of being lost without their beloved rigatoni. Michael and Christina had helped to spark Napa’s downtown revival, which led, finally, to dozens of new restaurants, but their pizza place, renamed the grammatically correct Azzurro Pizzeria e Enoteca in 2008, has remained a local favorite.

Driven by a similar desire—to wit, “Napa needs a place to get a really great burger”—the Gyetvans opened the Norman Rose Tavern, a cozy Cheers-like pub, in late 2009. For those who want more than just beef between their buns, the tavern serves burgers made of lamb, bean and barley, and sometimes even venison, buffalo or duck ($11.95–$15.95).

Michael began working in restaurants right out of high school, on the advice of his father, who told him, “At least you’ll get fed every day.” He met Christina in the early ’90s at St. Helena’s Tra Vigne Restaurant, where he cooked and she hosted. “It was a typical restaurant romance,” they tell me, which eventually led them to blend their families (both had children from previous marriages) and walk down the aisle.

Azzurro reflects Michael’s commitment to being “as politically correct as is affordable,” with a seasonally inspired menu of antipasti, salad, pasta and pizza. Limited refrigeration in the original location led him to create what he calls “the lazy man’s lasagna,” a baked rigatoni with hot Italian sausage and mushrooms that has become a perennial favorite ($15.95). “People would revolt if we took it off the menu,” Christina says.

Another Azzurro staple, the manciata, was created by accident by the busy (and hungry) chefs at Tra Vigne, who needed something “simple to make and easy to eat on the run, like a giant taco.” “Manciata” is Italian for “handful,” which refers to a fistful of flattened dough that’s baked and topped with a salad of caesar, spinach or arugula, with skirt steak and blue cheese ($12.50–$16.95).

Despite their two highly successful restaurants and a mobile catering service, Michael and Christina resemble nothing of the typical harried restaurateurs. They have the relaxed and cheerful energy of people who spend plenty of time on their bikes and skis, whose eyes light up when they talk about their son, Kobe, who saved up money from bussing tables to buy and build his own bike, and their giant cat, whom they’ve dubbed “the polar bear,” thanks to his 16-pound frame and refusal to come inside.

And thanks in large part to the enterprising Gyetvans, whose restaurants bookend either side of downtown, Napa locals now have a wealth of gastronomic possibilities in between. As Michael says with wonderment, “I can’t even remember the last time we went to St. Helena to eat.”

Pizzeria Azzurro e Enoteca, 1260 Main St., Napa, 707.255.5552. Norman Rose Tavern, 1401 First St., Napa, 707.258.1516.

Sonoma County Library