Second chances and rebirth are nothing new to Dan Kaiser. As a 9-year-old he was found drowned in his family’s swimming pool. His mother, Theresa, lifted the unresponsive boy from the water and handed him to his father, Richard, who immediately began CPR. Minutes passed but still no response. Richard kept at it — pressing up and down — as they both hoped for a miracle. Seconds later the little boy coughed and sputtered back to life.
Decades after that harrowing event Dan, his wife Carolina, and his father and mother co-own the Calistoga Italian restaurant Amaro, which recently replaced their previous Wine Country bistro-styled eatery, Veraison.
“My parents have always taught me to keep at it, no matter what,” Dan said. “We should have made this change a few years back, but with the fires and the pandemic we’ve been pretty much in survival mode since first opening. Now we have a chance to relaunch with something new.”
Italian rootsAmaro — the Italian word for bitter — is an Italian liqueur that is an essential ingredient in classics such as the Aperol Spritz, Negroni and Americano, or sipped straight as an after-dinner drink or occasionally with meals as an alternative to wine. Amaro can come in myriad flavor profiles because the varieties are often made of a blend of grape brandy and beet molasses infused with a combination of herbs, spices and fruit, or sometimes even vegetables and wormwood.
The operations at the restaurant, located in the Mount View Hotel, are run by Dan, Carolina and Taylor Jones, the executive chef. All three spent their childhoods cooking with or at least enjoying Italian food made by their grandmothers, memories that they each cherish.
“Taylor has ties to Northern Italy, while Carolina’s family was originally from Fiesole near Florence, and my mother’s family comes from Naples in the south,” Dan Kaiser said. “Our menu will reflect this breadth by having a range of Italian dishes — gnocchi, pastas, braised meats and pizza — an Italian-focused wine list and one of the most extensive selections of Amaro in the country.”
On the new menu are deep-fried artichokes paired with Cynar, which is an Amaro made infused with artichoke; homemade gnocchi with braised short ribs with Montenegro Amaro, a blend of dozens of botanicals, vanilla, orange peels and eucalyptus; and radicchio with handmade ricotta, almonds and dried cranberries paired with Del Ciclista Amaro that has raisin overtones.
Although Amaro has replaced Verasion, Johnny’s Sports Bar will remain the same, still serving beer, cocktails and wine along with brewpub-style food from a smallish menu. The Kaisers’ hope is that the community is eager to have an option for Italian comfort food and a pleasant atmosphere while at the same time happy to retain a more casual bar where they can enjoy a juicy burger and crispy fries.
Opening two eateries at once
In November 2016, the Kaisers purchased two restaurants in the Mount View Hotel on Calistoga’s Main Street — Johnny’s Sport’s Bar on one side of the lobby and a higher-end restaurant called Johnny’s Restaurant on the other.
Only months before, another local restaurateur, Michael Dunsford, had leased the two locations from the hotel. Both had sat empty since their previous owners — Jole Restaurant and Barolo Bar — had closed due to the Great Recession. Dunsford, and the owner of the hotel, Michael Woods, had spent considerable time and money renovating the spaces, which Dunsford saw as complements to his and his mother’s other eatery and bar, the Calistoga Inn at the opposite end of town.
But only a few months after they opened, Dunsford abruptly pulled the plug and put both new restaurants up for sale, saying at the time only that it hadn’t turned out as he’d hoped.
Keeping the Johnny’s Sports Bar roughly the same, the Kaisers changed the name of the other restaurant to Veraison, a word that signifies when wine grapes transition to ripening.
“What is a Wine Country bistro anyway? We’re all Italians when times get tough,” Kaiser said and then laughed. “Who doesn’t like a delicious and well-made pizza every now and again?”
“Our dream is to have a thriving restaurant and serve people a meal that gives them satisfaction and comfort — maybe someday even having kids who’d be running around and helping us out,” he said. “We are here nearly every day from morning until late and happy that we can be. But even so, there are forces that make nearly every move an uphill climb.”
Kaiser explained that although the city has allowed them to open the hotel’s side parking lot for outdoor dining, the future of their outdoor space remains uncertain.
“The city has been generous and allowed us to use the parking spots without any fee to this point, but to make it permanent would mean purchasing them,” he said. “We are working with the city to try and make something happen but it’s going to take time.”
Either way, the Amaro team won’t know until next year as the city continues to grapple with the economic fallout from the pandemic and fires. Until then, they’ll need to purchase a movable outdoor pizza oven to comply with fire-code regulations that require half of the patio dining space to be quickly pushed aside to allow for fire-truck access.
In a move that should put them in contention for some of the pandemic’s most valuable player awards, the team hung on over the last year, downsizing and shifting to takeout only, with Dan and Carolina ready to take orders at an open street-side window nearly every night, even when most other businesses were dark. Even so, they often found that the old adage “build it and they will come” is not always true.
“During normal times on a busy night we had 32 people on staff and might bring in $10,000,” Kaiser said. “But during the shutdown we were down to only me, Carolina and Taylor, and some nights there might have been only one or two orders, a big night might be $400.”
They also learned that hearty comfort food, compelling to-go options and maintaining a sense of humor can go a long way toward getting through even the toughest times.
“My dad always says that our goal is to be good neighbors,” Kaiser said. “We’ll continue to attempt to live up to his goal by providing a great experience that includes great food and drinks at a fair price. I always say that my parents gave me my life twice. Maybe even more often than that when I think about it.”
When asked about a proposed new Italian restaurant slated to open across the street later this year, in the Hotel D’Amici, Kaiser was circumspect.
“Just glad we’re first,” he said.
Launching into fire
The first major recent fire to disrupt normal life in the Napa Valley happened in October 2017, when the Tubbs Fire tore through the area, shutting businesses down for weeks and causing tourists to flee the region.
“We’d just started getting going in 2017 and then that first fire hit,” Kaiser said. “After the evacuation was lifted, we rallied and were the first back to reopen.”
As with many local businesses, the impact of the lost business due to the 2017 fires was significant but manageable. The thinking at the time for many was that if they could weather the slow winter season by tightening their belts, the following summer and fall would help pay for any losses.
But come 2018, tourism was hampered again by choking smoke from fires throughout California, including the Camp Fire in Paradise. That was followed by the Kincade Fire in 1029 which skirted Calistoga, and in 2020 the LNU Complex inferno, then the Glass Fire ravaged the area.
Up to that point, businesses could make significant profits in the summer and fall, which allowed them to survive the leaner period from November to March, when tourism slowed due to wet weather.
But nothing has been normal since 2017. This new dystopian reality has been exacerbated by the global pandemic, leaving restaurants that either don’t have infinitely deep pockets or can’t see light at the end of a long tunnel question how to — or even if they want to — keep going. For those restaurants that remain, adaption and refocusing on essentials has often become the No. 1 goal.
“What we’ve learned through the last few years is that we want to be a place that people can count on, enjoy good food and drinks at a decent price,” Kaiser said. “We can’t take any single customer for granted, and our goal is to make everyone leave here with a smile.”
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