The holiday season is a time for remembrances. Most of us recall occasions that were spectacular because of some outstanding event. Such memories may bring back feelings of happiness, or sometimes embarrassment, or sometimes pain. It is seldom that we recall the times that were — quite simply — pleasant. One of my most cordial memories, which was also extraordinary in its own way, involves the Vineyard Restaurant and a chat with the owners.
Several years ago on New Year‘s Eve, I reserved a table at the Vineyard for my date and me. It was a very busy night, and our table wasn’t quite ready when we were greeted by Chantal at the door. However, I spotted Bob and Helen Mariscotti at the far end of the bar and told Chantal that we’d wait there. Readers who never had the opportunity to meet the restaurant founders have missed an exceptional experience. Unfortunately, they both passed on a few years ago.
If I had to choose one word to describe them, it would be “warm.” They were the hosts who made visitors feel welcome without being “gushy.” I think that they were so good at putting people at ease because they were genuinely sincere in their concern for others. In fact, when Chantal came to tell us that our table was ready, we asked her to give it to someone else who might be waiting. Neither of us wanted to end the conversation.
Both my date and I were totally engrossed in the Mariscotti history, and we put hunger on the back burner. We were learning about the founding of a “24-hour-a-day pit stop” near Berenda, Bob’s idea about designing a building in Madera that was the marriage of a winery’s tasting room to a chapel, and the eventual move to the current elegant establishment where SR 145 meets SR 99 at 605 South I Street.
Over the years, the restaurant has become well known for its American menu with a Tuscan flavor, accented by large wooden barrels and high ceilings. It has been featured in numerous publications, including The Wine Spectator, Via Magazine (American Automobile Association), Fresno Magazine, and The Northern California Golf Magazine.
About a decade ago, Ted Koppel and the crew from the popular television news series, “Nightline,” came to Madera County to do a feature on the women’s correctional facility that was located in Chowchilla. When they discovered that one of the women was ready to deliver a baby, they decided to wait out the event. They stayed at the Madera Valley Inn and had dinner each night at the Vineyard. I was present for their last evening in town and witnessed Koppel walking through the restaurant and shaking hands with everyone from busboys to the head chef. His delight with the treatment that he and his staff had experienced during their stay was obvious.
A few years later, the Fresno Chapter of the California Restaurant Association recognized the Mariscotti family with its Lifetime Achievement Award at the Saroyan Theater. Then-congressman George Radanovich read a proclamation of congratulations into the Congressional Record. Other state and local politicians were also present to commemorate the occasion. Co-host of KMPH’s “Great Day” show, Kopi Sotiropolos, emceed the event in his black and red running shoes with the inimitable white swoosh.
As Chris Mariscotti, Bob and Helen’s son, took the stage, several hundred people in the theater rose to their feet. Chris, the current proprietor of the restaurant, bon vivant, and man-about-town, did the speaking for the family, giving a heartfelt thanks to the entire staff. Symbolically, as Chris was handed the Golden Plate Award, he passed it to his wife, Claudine, and then to his daughter, Gianna, perhaps the next generation of fantastic restaurateurs.
A video presentation was introduced by Nadine Sagouspe, and it informed the audience about the family history in the food preparation business. According to one tale, it all started when Pia (Chris’s grandmother) strangled a chicken and served it to ranch hands. The meal was enjoyed by everyone except for the ranch owner, who informed Pia that she’d just killed one of his best egg layers. Whether such stories are true is immaterial; the image of “grandma” strangling a hen becomes part of the legend.
Over the years that the restaurant has been in Madera, the “face” of the establishment was — without doubt — Helen. Guests of the restaurant can see her portrait (mounted next to Bob’s) on the east wall on the entry. People who had ever met Helen knew that they hadn’t just been welcomed to a restaurant; they had joined a family for a great dining experience.
Tomorrow night, we’ll celebrate the 40th anniversary of the restaurant’s founding in its current location with a special dinner. I wish that everyone who reads this column could join us, but the event has been sold out for weeks. The $125-per-plate meal will be prepared by Ian Cookson, executive chef, and his staff: Tyler Williams, David Moore, Codee Herring, and Alex Morales.
The fare will include bar snacks (sausages, almonds, and olives); salad with roasted beets, fennel, and oranges; cioppino cocktail; lobster ravioli with brown butter cream; and filet mignon. That will be followed with a “dessert duo” consisting of baked apple with caramel sauce and chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce. Nicole Darracq Bert, a nationally-known sommelier, will select wine pairings for each course.
Proceeds from the affair will go to the Madera County Arts Council (MCAC), which is celebrating its own 35th anniversary this year. Rochelle Noblett, executive director of the MCAC, has organized the event and taken charge of reservations. Rochelle said that it is a “wonderful coincidence” that the Vineyard and the MCAC can share a special occasion. The attendees at the anniversary dinner will be longtime friends of the Mariscotti family, along with members of the Director’s Circle of the arts council.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted email@example.com.