Cooking with George: A Napa icon shares some recipes

Cooking with George: A Napa icon shares some recipes

George Altamura, Sr. is well known to many locals as a successful Napa real estate developer. He is also equally as well known for his direct and bold style of communication and forthright personality. 

Most are unaware, however, that Altamura, who has called Napa home since the late 1940s, loves to cook.

“I cook the easy stuff,” Altamura said during a cooking session at his home. “It’s all about mastering these easy dishes that are plain yet elegant. How do you go wrong with that?”

He also shared some of his other culinary preferences, such as: His favorite time to cook is 3 a.m.

“I don’t like curry or cumin as they’re too strong,” Altamura said. “Also, be careful not to add too much basil as it can overpower the food. Everything needs to blend together, flavor and taste wise.”

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He also prefers copper pots and pans “because nothing sticks to them.”

Like most people, Altamura has his culinary inspiration. “My mother (Mary Altamura) was a great cook — one hell of a cook! She was the oldest daughter of her family back in Italy.

“Before she left for America at the age of 16 years old, she assisted her mother in the kitchen. In the process, she learned all the cooking methods, recipes and secrets from the old country.”

Mary and Carl Altamura emigrated to the U.S. from Italy and settled in Buffalo, N.Y. where they had four children: Frank, Esther, George and Ann. 

“Although we were poor, living in a poor Italian immigrant neighborhood, we had a good family life,” Altamura said.

As a boy, Altamura was an altar boy at their church. “I was paid 25 cents by the other altar boys to take their places at 7 a.m. mass,” he said.

Eventually through the hard work of his parents, the Altamuras moved into their own house in 1941, when Altamura was 10 years old. He recalled, “It was in a wealthier German Irish neighborhood. For two years, I was never allowed or invited into their homes because Italians had a bad reputation because of Al Capone.”

These early in life experiences would give Altamura compassion for his Hispanic employees in Napa and lead him to establish a scholarship for their children.

Another childhood experience with a food connection that would influence his life in Napa, came when he attended the St. Joseph Collegiate Institute. Altamura said, “A priest arranged for me to attend the school for free.” However he had to put in some “sweat equity” into that arrangement. Altamura explained, “At lunchtime, I had to make and cook hamburger patties in the school’s kitchen.”  This was a skill Altamura would utilize again in Napa.

His path to Napa also began during his school years. During the summer of 1948, Altamura, age 16, his cousin Don Ferrara, age 20, and friend Tommy De Lucio, age 22,  bought a 1940 GMC half-ton panel truck for $200, painted it black and blue and set out on a two-month, cross-country road trip. 

“We would camp out near streams for a water source,” Altamura said. “We also had stocked the truck with canned foods like beans and cooked every night. We would flip a coin to see who had to do the dishes and who would sleep on the mattress or in the truck seats.”

Along the way, they saw many memorable sights. “But we always went to places where the girls would be,” Altamura said. “Skating rinks were very popular.”

Their trip brought them through Napa Valley for a few days. Altamura recalled, “I loved it and wanted to stay here. I told my mother I was staying here. She cried and said I had to come home to finish school, or she would call the police.”

Altamura did return to Buffalo, finished and graduated from high school. The following year he hitched a ride westward as a passenger in Sammy Borelli’s 1949 Buick Roadster. They stopped in Chicago for a couple of days so Borelli could take care of some business before heading west to Reno, Nevada, where Borelli was to get a divorce. Altamura said, “I drove a lot of the way as he drove like a maniac at 90 to 100 miles an hour.”

By August, Altamura was in Napa but with only $9 to his name. He went to Rough Riders, a clothing manufacturer once located between Soscol Avenue and the east bank of the Napa River.

Although he was initially turned down for work, the company’s owner, Nathan Rothman, heard Altamura’s pleas, and according to Altamura, told his brother, Harry, “What’s the matter with you? Give him a job!”

“I was hired as a ‘bundle boy’ at 75-cents an hour, or $35 a month,” Altamura said. “Nathan Rothman took a liking to me, and I advanced to better paying jobs relatively quickly.”

Although employed, Altamura would not receive his first pay check for about three weeks. He recalled, “The people I worked with at Rough Rider were my salvation. Some made me lunch; others invited me to come to their homes for dinner.

“Most of the seamstresses were Italian. They mothered me and gave me 25 or 50-cents to buy lunch at Dave’s Place.” (The restaurant inside the Brooklyn Hotel at Third Street and Soscol Avenue.) They looked after me.” Altamura added, “I’ll always remember three ladies that were good to me — Tillie LaMonico, Minnie Maltabano and Christy Tallent. God Bless them!”

As for a place to sleep, Altamura spent his first nights in Napa in an abandoned rabbit hutch at a Norwalk station on Soscol and Shetler avenues. He washed up at a nearby service station. “One night in August 1949, it was hot and as I lay on the floor in my rabbit shack, I cried a little bit as I thought, ‘You stupid ass!’ What was I thinking? I had a nice home and family in Buffalo and left them.”

His circumstances soon improved, however, as Altamura found better housing at the Migliavacca mansion when it was located on the present-day Napa County Library site. He said, “It was a rooming house with one bathroom for all the tenants and run by Marian and Wade. My room which I rented for $8 a week was the one with a balcony above the front door. I also had kitchen privileges. I was 18 years old while the other six to eight guys were 20 to 30 years old.” Later, Altamura rented a La Londe Lane house.

Altamura also recalled, “Napa was so much damn fun!” When Altamura’s New York friends visited Napa, he and his buddies would frequent the Dream Bowl, a dance hall on North Kelley Road. Altamura said, “The guys from around here would just stand around. But we being from the East Coast, we knew how to dance.”

Eventually, Altamura would visit another Napa area dance hall and change his life forever. At Vichy Springs Resort (once located near Silverado Country Club), he met and danced with Jacqueline Paul, his future wife and life partner. They married on June 27, 1954.  “She’s now 88 years old,” Altamura said. “And, she is still gorgeous!”

In 1951, Altamura joined the Navy. During his last eight months of his enlistment, and while he was stationed at Hunters Point in San Francisco, he opened his first Napa business, Knotty Pine Drive-in on Jefferson Street across from Napa High, future site of the former Chick’s Burgers and now a bicycle shop. 

“I had weekends off beginning on Friday afternoons,” Altamura said. “I’d drive home every night and start working at Knotty Pines, a burger place with car hops. I would buy the meat, three pounds for $1, at Giovannini’s on Brown Street. Then I made 200-300 burger patties, stacked them and froze them. I sold the burgers for 19 cents each. While others charged 35 cents for their burgers.”

Altamura added, “Burgers were big business! Napa was a wild, busy place with all the drive-ins, like Kenny’s, Lillie’s, the Wright Spot, and Vernon Berg’s Copper Chimney near St. Helena. Berg sold me the Knotty Pine business.”

As Altamura continued to flip burgers, his stint with the Navy was coming to a close and he took some vocational aptitude tests. He said, “I could have gone into whatever trade I wanted, such as engineering. But, I wanted to go into the carpentry workshop. I was the worse one! But I wanted a contractor’s license as Napa was on the move, and I saw its future.”

“I did my apprenticeship at Mare Island to be able to eventually get a contractor’s license, which I did.”

Leaving behind the world of fast food, Altamura approached local contractor-builder L.W. Dodd. “He’d had a heart attack and could no longer work.” Altamura and Dodd worked out a financial deal: a one year loan of $10,000 plus interest. “Because I always paid him back, he would loan me more until I had my own money, and I could borrow from the banks and build credit. Dodd was a great friend!”

As part of his lifelong career as a developer, Altamura helped to create a Napa Valley foodies’ mecca and icon, Bistro Don Giovanni.

“I always thank God I found my paradise,” he said. “Napa Valley!”

He shared three recipes for Register readers.

This works for any pasta.

3 large cloves of garlic (chopped fine)

1 tablespoons Italian parsley

½ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated

2 – 28 oz. cans of Centro San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes

½ pound Italian sausage, finely cut up

In large fry pan put 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add in minced garlic, cook 1 minute, remove to dish.

Add sausage to same fry pan, cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Put garlic back in pan with sausage, cook 1 minute.

Add in 2 28 oz. cans of the tomatoes (finely chopped in food processor or bullet.)

Cook all together for 15 minutes.

Add in grated Pecorino cheese and parsley. Cook all together for 3 minutes and it’s ready to serve.

You can use this sauce to make manicotti pasta

Place a layer of sauce in bottom of baking dish.

Place filled manicotti shells, seam side down, on the bed of sauce ½ inch apart. (They swell.)

Pour sauce over the top. Add a little Pecorino cheese on top, cook in oven at 375 degrees for 25 minutes.

1 ¼ cups of cold tap water

Blend all ingredients together (like pancake batter) until it is smooth.

Use 2 or 3 8-inch non-stick frying pans

Lightly coat frying pans with oil over low heat.

Pour in a ladle of batter into each pan (find the perfect size ladle)

Swirl each pan to spread the batter as thin as possible over the entire bottom of the pan to make the shells as thin as possible. Keep on low heat for 1 minute or until they begin to show a little off-white color with parts of the shell beginning to show slight golden brown spots.

After 1 minute, flip batter over to cook the other side

When both sides are done cooking, place shells immediately in a 10-12-inch pan with a lid to keep them steamed-hot while you continue to cook more shells.

1 container of whole milk ricotta cheese

¼ pound Italian sausage

¼ cup Pecorino Romano cheese

Fry ¼ pound of crumbled Italian sausage, render off grease and let sausage cool after frying.

Mixed cooled sausage with container of ricotta, ¼ Cup of Pecorino Romano cheese and ¼ teaspoon of black pepper

Place more or less a big spoon full of filling in each shell and roll lightly like a cigar roll.

Keep the seam of the shell on the bottom when placing in a pan to bake.

Put a red sauce of your choice on bottom and top of rolled up shells in a pan with grated cheese on top, keeping the shells ½-inch apart.

Baked  at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, 25 minutes with a foil cover and 5 minutes uncovered.

“I have a new idea for lasagna,” Altamura said. “I have not tried it yet, but I think it will be delicious.”

In a 12-inch square copper fry pan or round oven-proof pan, he said, “I am going to make the same batter as the manicotti and make 12-inch crepes in the frypan.”

Put 3–4 fried shells into a covered pot to keep soft. When crepes are done, put sauce on bottom of lightly oiled fry pan, then 1 shell, ricotta and fried sausage mixture, and a little sauce. Add another shell, ricotta mixture, sauce, etc. for each layer. Then top with remaining sauce and a sprinkle of Pecorino Romano cheese and bake in oven for 30 minutes at 375 degrees.

When done, slide out onto large plate, or use a plastic spatula to cut and serve the lasagna.

“Let’s hope for the best,” he said. “Let me know.”

This meal is from southern Italy, the “heel.” Altamura said, “This dish was used to feed large families who were poor and had very little food.”

Peak of the season, vine-ripened tomatoes, cut into large chunks

Ice cubes to make water colder

In a large bowl combine cold water with salt, and ice cubes. When water is very cold, remove ice cubes.

Mix in tomatoes, garlic and oregano to taste.

Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and mix gently together.

Sprinkle a coating of olive oil on top.

Serve individual portions in bowls. Add a teaspoon of olive oil to each serving.

Serve sliced French bread (preferably a day or two old) for dipping.

Dip bread in the salty solution, eating bread and tomatoes together.

Float a little olive oil to the top of tomato solution as needed.

Altamura said, “My family can’t wait until I make this during the tomato season.”