When you’re a restaurateur working with an experienced, dedicated staff who’ve essentially hit the top of the available pay scale yet still feel that inherent need for upward mobility, what do you do? If you’re Luca Crestanelli, you open a new restaurant, even in the midst of a pandemic.
“The team at S.Y. Kitchen was almost too good,” said the Verona, Italy-raised chef and co-owner of the popular and acclaimed Santa Ynez restaurant that opened in 2013. “The expansion was about giving these guys more room to grow. If we didn’t expand, I would have lost them. It was vital for us to take an extra step.”
Nella Kitchen & Bar was that step. Located inside of the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn next to dozens of tasting rooms in the quaint heart of Los Olivos, Nella instantly became a hard-to-get table for lunch and dinner when it fully opened on Valentine’s Day in February 2021. (There was a two-month “test run” prior to the winter lockdown.) Serving Southern Italian–leaning starters, entrees, and pinsa — the long-fermented, sourdough-ish pizza-meets-flatbread first popularized in Rome — the team is pumping out dishes both lobby-bar-friendly, such as aioli-sided artichokes and hot meatballs (both $16) and more sit-down-approved, like Muscovy duck with handmade couscous ($39), lamb chops scottadito with porcini mushrooms ($36), and filet mignon in green peppercorn sauce ($36).
“The main idea is the quality of the ingredients and the simplicity of the preparation,” said Crestanelli, who’s proud to offer a place where people can dress to the nines, wander in wearing workout clothes, and come chow after working in their garden. “I’m not looking for you to come in once a year. I want you to come in once a week.”
A considerable draw to the Nella formula is the bar, overseen by Chris Hewes. The son of bartender and “cocktail historian” James Hewes — who’s poured drinks at the Round Robin Bar in Washington D.C.’s Willard Intercontinental since 1986 — Chris won his own accolades by running the bars at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. He moved briefly to Minnesota, but when S.Y. Kitchen’s GM Dario Dell’Anno called him up for suggestions on a bartender to run Nella, Hewes decided to come back to California.
“I help out wherever I can,” said Hewes, who’s become the de facto face of the establishment. “I’ll make the dough if I have to.”
His inventive drinks touch on classics while involving ingredients like Thai chocolate (the Barrel-Aged Boulevardier), arugula and elderflower foam (the mezcal-based Roquette Fuel), and even celery, as in the Wheelbarrow, with gin, lillet, and white cacao liqueur. Margarita fans will find their calling in his Desperados, with Ojai pixie tangerines (“People just flock to it,” he said), and there’s a Parker Spritz for aperitif enjoyment. And he’ll make whatever you want as well, such as espresso martinis, currently undergoing an unexplained nationwide renaissance. “It makes people so happy,” said Hewes, who hated making the drink in his younger days.
Hewes believes that these are among the best cocktails of his career. “I don’t drink,” he said of dropping the booze himself. “My palate has gotten so much better. It brought back a new passion for making cocktails again.” No wonder the nonalcoholic drinks are stars as well, like the cucumber-lime-ginger beer Green Mile.
Craft cocktails — under the direction of Alberto Battaglini, now running Solvang’s Sear Steakhouse and Pony Espresso in Santa Ynez — were also what helped set S.Y. Kitchen apart when it opened eight years ago. While there were good places to eat in the Santa Ynez Valley back then, most leaned a little more traditional or steakhouse or casual. S.Y. Kitchen signified a maturation of sorts, representing a shift north for culinary talent, money, and interest from the global restaurant mecca of Los Angeles. Both S.Y. Kitchen and Nella are a partnership between Crestanelli and Kathie and Mike Gordon, who own Toscana in Brentwood but live mostly up here.
“He gets more excited about food than a 15-year-old,” said Crestanelli of Gordon’s continued enthusiasm, which powered the Nella opening as well. “I get emails from him every day.”
Like everywhere else, Nella is struggling with hiring enough staff in the pandemic-emergent world. “There’s a very huge demand: People are literally piling at the door,” explained Crestanelli, who’s been careful to keep the menu tight for now. “We can’t take a bite bigger than our mouths.”
That also means he’s back in the kitchen a lot. “I’m cooking on the line five days a week,” he told me back in April when I first visited. “I love it, don’t get me wrong, but I want to go fishing!”
As we finished chatting, out came profiteroles (reliably delicious) and a pineapple carpaccio dish that recalled sunburned summers at a Hawaiian resort, marinated in strawberry juice and topped with ginger and mint. It was a light and refreshing end for a lunch of cilantro/tomatillo-spiced tuna tartare and fluffy carciofi pinsa, and another show of what keeps the kitchen invigorated.
“This is to make sure they have a future with you,” said Crestanelli of his staff. “Not under you, but with you.”
2860 Grand Ave, Los Olivos; (805) 686-1359; nellakitchen.com.
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