Modesto’s underground gourmet food scene

by Kelsey

Modesto, California isn’t known for its food. Many other things compete for the starring role in the city’s reputation: dishonest politicians, tragic homicides and outstanding car theft records.

But I would argue that Modesto — like most disregarded, disrespected places — has its hidden gems. One of the best ones: its enthusiastic, ever-loyal, elite following of foodies.

This weekend I witnessed firsthand these food connoisseurs when I tagged along with my parents, who have happily resided in Modesto for years, to one of Benni’s Nights at Concetta.

These invitation-only, five course dinners are held one Sunday a month at the local pizzeria-turned-tapas-restaurant Concetta (one that could, in my humble opinion, easily take on any of L.A.’s refined pizza eateries…and win.) It’s like the small-town version of the “underground dining” or “secret supper clubs” in big cities, like the not-so-secret Chicks with Knives.

Chef Christopher Bonora used to own a local Modesto restaurant and developed quite a following; when he eventually sold the restaurant, his friends and fans still hungered for his cooking, and the monthly dinners began, named after one of his relatives, Benni. Concetta is a cozy, two-room venue with a full bar, big tables, and crisp, attentive service — a perfect venue for such a “secret” event — and the restaurant’s owner Paul Tremain (a colleague friend of my parents and a critical, indispensable part of the downtown Modesto restaurant scene) was out on the floor himself, serving and chatting throughout the night.

The menu for each “underground” dinner (prix fixe) is emailed to diners beforehand. Ours included:

Antipasti: cold Fritatta, fantastic Salumi, Roasted Verdura (beets, olives)
Ensalata: Mixed greens with Benni’s dressing, a light vinaigrette
Zuppa: Minestrone (thick and creamy, with parmesan cheese)
Choice of entree
Choice of dessert

After much entree deliberation, I settled on the Rigatoni alla Siciliana, a rich, spicy caper and olive anchovy sauce over fresh pasta. It was fantastic. My dad had the Mostacolli allo Benni, pasta in a saute of lamb, onions, olives. My mom had the Ossobuco allo Stella Prandini, a braised veal served over mushroom risotto. Paul recommended a bottle of Juan Gil, a Spanish wine from Jumilla. We had a choice of dessert, but we unanimously chose Mama Jeanne’s Bread Pudding, a traditional breading topped with creamy vanilla pudding and sweet raisins. I’d also like to point out that Mama Jeanne, the chef’s mother, was sitting at the table next to us.

I won’t include much more about the actual dinner, since they are invite-only. Really, it was the experience that impressed me: drinking good wine, eating quality food and spending time with people I love, surrounded by others from our community. In Modesto.

And even though I love L.A. for all its grit and grime, a lot of that community doesn’t transfer over in big cities. For example, the possibility that I will end up in a restaurant and see even one person I know is very rare; the idea of being surrounded by people I know (or at least recognize) in a restaurant by chance is almost an impossibility. That very idea — that you can eat and shop and live and know those living around you — is something I believe we really need, not only for our full enjoyment of food and dining, but also for our souls.

Living in this metropolis of almost four million inhabitants, I forget it exists, but am reminded and reassured with little dinners in cozy locally-owned restaurants in small towns. Our wine just tasted different after Paul told us it was made from grapes that came from 40-year-old shallow, rocky soil vineyards in Spain where the vines struggle to grow. Anyone could have told us that, but we knew Paul and it meant something different.

Some people have settled in Modesto who have had a taste of worldly and quality cuisine, and when a restaurateur of that caliber quietly tries to make his or her mark in a place where good food is vastly underappreciated, those people jump on the bandwagon and stay on.

Here’s to those dedicated people, who keep culture and community alive in small but important (and delicious) ways: cheers.

Photo: Benni’s night at Concetta on November 8, 2009. Credit: Kelsey Ramos.

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Rachael Narins January 3, 2010 - 3:55 pm

I suddenly want to go to Modesto! Sounds like a terrific night.

Kelsey January 16, 2010 - 10:53 pm

Thanks for reading — if you ever do end up going, let us know!


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