Article archives

Wine Country Personality

Marco Ruiz of Pasta Prego

Who do the Napa locals go to when they want stuffed bell peppers (with linguini, mushrooms, and Sicilian sausage) or wonderful pork chops, grilled French-style? And where do the locals go in droves to enjoy incredibly fresh fish, a strong local wine list, and an intimate dining experience where it is likely that everyone – especially the chef -- knows your name?

There is only one answer: Marco Ruiz’s at Pasta Prego. Pasta Prego is one of the granddaddies of the Napa Valley restaurant scene, and while Marco has been at the helm – since 1990 – it has been a favorite among the in-the-know dining set. Marco blends fresh ingredients (that day’s fish and produce arrive at the restaurant that day), a convivial personality (where the restaurant is seldom too busy to not have Marco or partner Richard Tiedeman conversing with diners), and sharp culinary skill to create an experience that is consistent, comfortable, and affordable – and high on the local’s list.

“I really like to be here,” Marco said, “better than being at home sometimes. I have gotten to know so many people.” In fact, Marco says, one of the things he enjoys so much about living and working in the Napa Valley is that he can seldom go someplace without running into a customer or a friend. At the golf course, grocery shopping, and his children’s activities, Marco says he frequently sees someone out and about who was only just a night or two before enjoying themselves at the restaurant.

Marco moved to the Napa Valley from his native Guatemala in 1983, after a couple of years in the Bay Area. Within seven years of his arrival to the United States, Marco was working as a chef. A big change from the family environment he grew up in – a small farm that in his boyhood years didn’t even have electricity.

Marco has certainly been around long enough see the enormous changes that have happened here over the past 20 years – especially on the culinary scene. Before the Italian craze, Marco cooked “American food.” It wasn’t until a small restaurant opened in Yountville that he even knew much about the style of cuisine that would become his hallmark.

When Piatti’s restaurant opened in Yountville it quickly became a huge hit. As Piatti’s chef, Marco (with Donna Scala hanging over his shoulder) made the cover of the 1988 Wine Spectator’s Wine Country Guide to California. In the mid-80’s, Piatti’s was in its hey-day, opening restaurants around Northern California. It was then that Marco had the opportunity to become a corporate chef, or to stay close to his home and family. He chose to make the jump, and open his own restaurant – a move his customer’s still rave about.

According to local resident George Porter, the retired head of Levi Straus, claims to have eaten in the finest restaurants in more than 70 countries, and rates Pasta Prego as one of the top three that he has ever dined at. Pasta Prego was busy from the day Marco opened the restaurant. Much of that had to do with the reputation he forged at Piatti’s.

The pasta is made fresh daily, and the fish (which everyone comes for) arrives from San Francisco in the morning. Marco says he only buys enough for the evening’s meals. “If we run out, we run out,” he said. “I won’t stock 600 pounds.” Richard joked about everything being so fresh that if you went through the garbage you would not find a can. Well, he allowed, maybe a few beer cans at the end of the evening. Desserts also are all made in house.

Considering Marco’s roots, you might be surprised that there is little to no flavor and menu influence from Guatemala. But, Marco said he didn’t cook when he lived there – and at home his wife takes care of the family meals. He is modest about his accomplishments in the United States, though it is clear that he has worked very hard and he is highly appreciative of his new nation. “I love the United States,” he says. You can tell though, when he speaks of his family (his five brothers in Guatemala, and his family here) that he is pleased with their praise. “My family is very proud of me.”

The small trattoria is in what might be considered an unlikely location: a small outdoor mall in central Napa with an eclectic mix of stores and no other fine dining venues. Prices are reasonable with entrée’s averaging around $15. Without wine, two people could share an appetizer and each enjoy a lunch entrée for about $30. Corkage is only $10, and the wine list supports the many local vintners who frequently dine at Pasta Prego. Parking is plentiful, but reservations (especially Thursday through Sunday) are recommended.