By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
Located in Downtown Los Angeles, San Antonio Winery is the city’s oldest winery and tasting room; a hidden gem and historical landmark operating in the same exact community where it was founded in 1917.
The story of San Antonio and its 1,000 acres of vineyards dates back to 1910, when Santo Cambianica left his hometown of Berzo San Fermo (located in the northern Italian province of Lombardia) and passing through Ellis Island en route to downtown Los Angeles’ then-Italian-American neighborhood (located where Chinatown stands today), he quickly earned a sterling reputation as an honest and deeply devout Catholic with a terrific work ethic.
In only a few years, Cambianica had laid the infrastructure of financial resources and community contacts to found the Lamar Street site in 1917, when he dedicated his new endeavor to Patron Saint Anthony.
“LA is actually the birthplace of wine in California during Prohibition,” said General Manager Dominic Menton, who led us on a tour of the facility in April.
Once the U.S. Government enacted the 18th Amendment, San Antonio Winery fell back on its Italian-American community to survive the turbulent, Great Depression era. For 13 years during the Prohibition, the winery stayed in business by supplying such area congregations as St. Peter’s Catholic Italian Church with communion wine (which was legal).
Meanwhile, in 1936, a teenaged Stefano Riboli, Cambianica’s nephew, came from Italy to Los Angeles, where he immediately began apprenticing under his “Uncle Santo.”
Riboli, who married Maddalena Satragni in 1946, proved an invaluable partner to his uncle and eventually took over the family winery after Cambianica’s 1956 death.
The Ribolis—“Papa Steve,” today 97, and Maddalena, 96—have owned the winery and guided its evolution ever since, adding on a restaurant named after Maddalena by the early 1970s.
As Menton explained, after Maddalena began making and selling sandwiches in the corner of the winery that proved popular with the local railroad workers, the full-blown Maddalena restaurant was born.
Today, San Antonio Winery has an operation that sprawls all over the state. In addition to the original site near downtown, where the original house on the property was lifted and relocated to Daily Street (where today one of the winery’s warehouse guys inhabits it), there is a San Antonio store in Ontario, vineyards in Napa Valley’s Rutherford community, more grape fields around Sacramento (where Inglenook grows grapes nearby in Moldavi) and a huge site in Paso Robles.
As Menton noted, San Antonio produces some 700,000 cases a year, and that’s not including its Stella Rosa stock imported from Italy.
Not every part of the winery is old; there are huge swaths of the venerable site that have undergone some recent renovations. A former aging cellar is now a tasting room, and there’s the Founder’s Cellar, a former aging cellar revamped just this past December to accommodate high-end events.
After our tour, we retreated to Maddalena, which, on this evening, was alive with diners by the family. Chef Ray Vasquez launched a fantastic meal by bringing out the Big Italian Salad, a surprisingly refreshing and tasty mix of romaine lettuce, red onion, green olives, Genoa salami and Parmesan—surprising because the salad’s appearance looks quite basic.
Meat Lasagna is the signature dish at Maddalena, with its pasta sheets house-made and hand-rolled in the kitchen. The care that goes into creating this bed of pasta, sauce and mozzarella, served in a generous portion, surfaced in every morsel, every bite. This plate is not considered the signature entrée for nothing.
Cacio e pepe (Italian for “cheese and pepper”) comes with Pepperino, a sheep’s milk-like cheese resembling Parmesan in taste. Other pasta dishes include Linguini with Scampi and there is a Vegetarian Lasagna alternative.
While all of the plates so far appear visually appetizing if traditional, Rack of Lamb, interestingly enough, arrives looking quite gourmet-ish, bathed in a mint balsamic reduction and adorned with asparagus. The results are mouthwateringly savory, with the meat tender, moist and juicy.
We capped off our meal’s closing stage with a perfect cup of cappuccino and a triad of desserts, which arrived in the form of Tiramisu (made with espresso and brandy), Cannoli with Stella Moscato D’Asti Crème and Crème Brulee—all of which delivered in their respective categories. The cannoli was especially interesting; the ricotta filling very mild and unsweetened, providing a nice counterbalance to its doughy exterior.
Outside of what we enjoyed, there is much more to explore at Maddalena and, of course, there are many varietals of wine, under San Antonio’s San Simeon, Windstream and Stella Rosa brands.
Ultimately, for a great dining experience, the quality of the food will always trump ambiance and service, and yet Maddalena’s and the winery, with their cozy, homey settings and kitschy touches, have ample charms galore in all areas.
For reasonably priced, authentic-tasting Italian food, Maddalena’s—with all of its attendant richness of lore and decor as fermented as its vino into the walls of the establishment—proves an Eastside location worth making the trek across town for.