When he was 11 years old, Angelo Chambrone started washing dishes and bussing tables in his parents' restaurant, Sweet Lou's, in Cotati. By the time he was 12, he'd been, as he puts it, "lured into the kitchen." At 14, Chambrone was training new hires who had two decades on him.
Little wonder, then, that at an age when many people are still figuring out what they want to do when they grow up, Chambrone has already blazed his career path. The executive chef of Barolo in Calistoga is also, at 23, the youngest chef in all of the Napa Valley.
"I like to go to other restaurants," Chambrone tells me on a recent afternoon, "prepared to get my ass kicked." Though he's seen an increase in Barolo's business since taking over the burners and revamping the menu nearly a year ago, the self-described "old soul" still puts plenty of pressure on himself. His biggest critics are his three older brothers, who all sport the same tattoo of their family name. Their ancestors on both sides are from Calabria in southern Italy—"in the toe of the boot," Chambrone says, pointing to the tattoo of his motherland on the flip side of his arm.
If all the ink isn't proof enough, Chambrone's fierce Italian pride is evident in his food. "My dad makes fun of me for being a purist," he says, "but I just don't want to cook or eat anything else."
Potential diners, be grateful. Chambrone does as little as possible to his ingredients, allowing them—and not extra sauces or cream or butter, which he refuses to cook with—"to speak for themselves." The olive oil aficionado makes his own ricotta salata, mozzarella, salami, gnocchi, and cavatelli—a drier fresh pasta that he describes as "toothsome"—in-house. "I cook seasonally and source locally," he tells me, "not because it's a fad, but because it's the Italian way."
Growing up, Chambrone, who was born and raised in Roseland in Santa Rosa, was the kind of picky kid "who always ordered the chicken." He started working in seventh grade, and by high school was holding down a dizzying schedule of school, football and late nights at the restaurant. He graduated from Elsie Allen High School in June of 2007, the same month his parents closed Sweet Lou's.
"The more I work, the more I stay sane," testifies Chambrone, who's shaken skillets at Healdsburg Bar & Grill, Rosso Pizzeria and Francis Ford Coppola Winery, where, together with his childhood friend and sous chef, Dominic Fabiani, he "helped build it into the empire it is today."
These days, the chef duo (Chambrone and Fabiani have been working together since Sweet Lou's) are happy to be cooking in Barolo's small kitchen, just a fraction of the size of Coppola's, where they served an average of 650 diners a day. "When you're turning over that many people," Chambrone says, "there's not a whole lot of love or emotion being put into the food."
When asked what else he enjoys doing, the still-picky Chambrone laughs and says, "Nothing. This is it." He recently moved into a studio apartment just a 30-second walk from his restaurant, and in his spare time reads biographies of chefs.
Chambrone may be single-minded, but as I watch him turn asparagus, bread crumbs, lemon zest and Parmesan into a sumptuous plate-scraping dish, it's clear that his most potent ingredient is, indeed, love.