Local olive oil comes with a side of history at the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company in St. Helena.
The shop, which lives in an old white barn two blocks east of Highway 29 behind The Charter Oak restaurant, has been selling oil, salumi, cheeses, and a variety of imported Italian foods since the 1930s. Today the place is quite literally jam-packed with provisions for an epic Italian feast.
In a region with great food and Michelin-starred restaurants, “Napa Valley Olive Oil” holds its own.
“In many ways this place is the last of its kind,” says Jules Particelli, a thirty-something who is the grandson of one of the original owners and the store manager today. “There was a time when family groceries like this one were everywhere in the valley. Now we’re one of the only ones left. It says a lot about how loyal our customers have been over the years.”
It’s hard not to fall in love with the Napa Valley Olive Oil experience.
From the outside, the place is entirely nondescript—if you didn’t know there was an Italian specialty foods store inside, you wouldn’t think it was anything more than an old barn.
Walk through the front door, however, and the shop assaults your senses. Feast your eyes on walls covered with business cards, some of which date back to the 1930s and 1940s. Inhale the sweet-and-salty smells of creamy cheeses and cured meats. Run your fingers along the edge of the original stone olive mill, the centerpiece of the barn. Listen to old ladies in the back babbling in Italian.
Pay closer attention and the details of the place will make you smile. Here, by the display of salami from P.G. Molinari & Sons in San Francisco, a handwritten sign indicates the stuff is local. There, by the case of local and imported cheese, Particelli slices big blocks into smaller chunks with a piano wire.
“People like to talk about authenticity,” he says. “We are as authentic as you can get.”
As Particelli explains, Italian-born Gugliemo Guidi—a family cousin, of sorts—founded the shop in 1931 as a northern outpost for his brother’s Italian market and deli in San Francisco. Guidi opened the shop because folks who had moved from the city to St. Helena couldn’t get the same items they had been able to purchase down in the city.
Gradually the Napa shop took on a life of its own. The Particellis assumed control in the 1960s and have run the business ever since. First it was Jules’ grandfather. Then his father, Ray. Now it’s him.
(The Particellis opened a more modern outpost in downtown St. Helena in 2012.)
The barn shop always has bottled its own olive oil. In the beginning, they made it in-house with juice from local olives ground on the stone mill. By the 1970s, as local olives became scarce, the Particellis shut down the mill and turned to small vendors in the Sacramento Valley for oil.
They still blend the oil in-house today—giant vats store the stuff in a back room. One whole wall of the shop offers different varieties such as lemon, blood orange garlic, chili, and more.
Jules Particelli says there are roughly 20 different oil options at any given time.
Elsewhere in the shop, visitors can find a treasure-trove of other Italian goodies, from dessert cookies called pizelles to panettones, pastas to polentas. A refrigerated case near the front door has prepackaged picnic kits including cheeses, salami, peppers, and other goodies. A rack has a variety of different spices commonly used in Italian cooking. Of course, there’s always vinegar (from Italy’s Reggio Emilia), too.
Perhaps the tastiest treats in the entire barn are right near the door: Individual sticks of spicy pepperoni for $1.25 apiece. Consider these a Napa Valley spin on Slim Jims. And be sure to stock up before you hit the road.