La dolce Malvina
Henri discovers authentic Italian cooking in downtown Chico
In September of 1985, I was living in Paris and dating a young flight attendant from Lufthansa. We’d spend weekends exploring the museums and shopping along the Champs Elysàe and late afternoons drinking Beaujolais at little outdoor cafes along the Seine. La vie was très bien, and Henri looked dashing in his beret and ascot. By October, it was over.
I couldn’t sleep the night we broke up and sometime around 3 went out for a walk. The streets were quiet, and a full moon shone off the Seine. I walked out onto the Pont-Neuf and stared down for a long time at the dark water swirling below. But with sun came the sounds of the new day—honking horns, sirens, clanking garbage trucks—and I came to a profound conclusion and words I live by to this day: La vie goes on. I took a deep breath, walked off the bridge, had a cafà au lait while I waited for a travel agency to open and bought a train ticket for Rome.
Two days later I was on a train heading east and that evening pulled into the Rome train station. I found a hotel room and, famished, went looking for dinner, which I found in the way of a dimly lit little four-table ristorante serving prix-fix six-course dinners of vitello and pesce frutti de mare. I must have spent nearly four hours over dinner, and sometime near midnight, exhausted, found my way back to my room.
The next two weeks I spent eating Italy—Perugia and Assisi, up to Verona, then circling back to Milan by way of Como and Aosta. The best meal I had was in Courmayeur at La Maison de Filippo, a converted stone farmhouse whose walls were decorated with old leather yokes and shiny copper pots.
Fittingly, I had my last Italian dinner near the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where a half hour earlier I had stood in awe as overalled workers on scaffolding worked to restore Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Afterward, I bought a ticket for sleeper on a direttissimo and slept most of the way back to Paris.
So of course I’ve long had a soft spot in my cuore for Italian food and a couple weeks ago was delighted to discover Caffe Malvina in downtown Chico. Since my first visit, I’ve been back three more times, and the food has always been excellent and authentic and the service superbo.
Entrees range from $12-$16 and include a house salad, soup, and bread. Seafood dishes include the calamari Malvina, breaded and deep fried, and prawns sautàed in butter, garlic, wine, lemons and capers. They also serve the classic chicken dishes, including cacciatore (with garlic, bell peppers, onion and a tomato sauce) diavola (in a lemon sauce) and Parmigiana (chicken breast topped with a tomato-and-wine sauce and melted cheese).
Veal dishes include scaloppini (with garlic, onions and mushrooms), saltimbocca (garlic, butter, wine, cheese and prosciutto), and Parmigiana. There are also nearly 20 pasta dishes from which to choose, from zucchini lasagna and cannelloni stuffed with chicken, cheese, and spinach to clam linguini and penne with artichokes in a pesto sauce. Individual pizzas—with sun-dried tomatoes, shrimp, pesto, or tomatoes and black olives—run $10-$12.
The rather brief wine list at Caffe Malvina includes several excellent Italian wines, all of which are quite affordable, the most expensive bottle being a Barolo for $55. Most—including the Valpolicella, Verdicchio, two Chiantis and a Sangiovese—run $18-$22 ($5.50 by the glass). The house red is a Castle Rock Merlot.
The last time I ate at Caffe Malvina, I had the calamari Malvina and a couple of glasses of Pinot Grigio. Afterward, I walked up to One-Mile and across the little bridge over the dam. I stopped to look upstream at the moonlight reflecting on Sycamore Pool, and then headed home. La vita is indeed dolce.