In a word, finally.

After an excruciating four-year wait – and three rather excruciating editions of the Salinas Valley Food & Wine Festival – the massive 201 Main restaurant-airy marketplace project at the heart of Main Street in Oldtown Salinas is ready to make its debut, just in time to give the festival’s fourth installment a desperately needed bit of ooh and ahh.

More about the festival in a second. First, more on the epic slog just to get the usage permit granted – and the health department visiting as this went to press – to allow for the winemaker’s dinner ($85) a week from Friday (Oct. 3).

More than 700 yards of dirt were hauled out by wheelbarrow – a single yard being enough to cover 322 square feet – and that was just to clear the basement to make room for a 1,200-square-foot dance floor. Updating the elevator almost sunk the project itself. One insider says $7 million was poured in. Whole floors and ceilings and beams of the former Wells Fargo building were remastered or replaced.

Now the building actually looks like it’s ready to become the wildly ambitious constellation of restaurant, wine bar, craft product stalls and event spaces it has been ballyhooed to be.

“To be honest,” says Jesse Kehoe, senior VP of Berkley Inc., “it’s kind of surreal. I don’t know what to do with myself as construction comes to a close.”

One thing will be to enjoy the festival’s four-course winemaker gala dinner Oct. 3 at 201 Main’s 225-seat Italian restaurant Giorgio’sOdonata sparkling wine will fill goblets for a toast as wild boar-tomato bruschetta circulates with reserve Antle red wine. Next comes a Salinas organic mix of greens with Tuscan melon, goat cheese and grape tomatoes (and a McFarland Percheron TributeChardonnay). Then it’s a Brunello-braised short rib or squash-provolone-polenta Napoleon (and DeTierra Syrah). House-crafted tiramisu paired with DeTierra Riesling closes the dinner.

The menu is the first salvo from Exec Chef Alessio Giannuzzi.

He was born and raised in Tuscany, just 15 minutes from Florence, where his family runs a bed and breakfast named Il Pianaccio and tends 40 acres of grape vines and olive trees.

He has returned to help manage things at different junctions but first came to Carmel at 19 (he’s 49 now), and – after turns owning Bon Appetit (now Thai Bistro) in Carmel Valley and stints at Il Fornaio in Levi’s Plaza San Francisco and Carmel-by-the-Sea and Asilomar Conference Grounds – is thrilled with the possibilities.

“Food is my passion,” he says. “I like to make people happy.”

He’s predictably amped about his proximity to Salinas plunder and producers whose scale you can taste.

“People who take care of growing animals and vegetables, you can’t compare to a big company,” he says. “The flavor is so different. It’s like that in Italy. People say, ‘The food is so wonderful! Why?!’ It’s not mass-produced!”

He’s also eager to start baking foccacias and ciabattas in a little bakery in the back – and to get two of his specialties, charcuterie and pasta, going with the help of patience and a pasta machine.

“Everybody buys pasta,” he says. “But a machine has more settings that should be used. And there are no substitutes for the touch of your hand.”

The dinner is preceded by a free kick-off party on Gabilan Street in Oldtown starting 5pm Thursday, Oct. 2, that’s much more like a farmers market, and a beta test of an evening version of the Saturday daytime edition and its mix of fresh produce, hot foods and community vibe.

The following Saturday, Oct. 11, is the festival’s featured event, which covers six blocks of downtown with four stages – two with music, one with culture and another with food demos. “Salinas Valley Alley” will give away local produce samples from local companies, a kids zone will engage the littles while car and old boat shows, performance artists and artisan craft vendors will do their thing.

Wine and food tasting starring the likes of ManzoniHahnPuma Road and Bernardus and Michael’s Taqueria and Monterey Coast Brewing runs $35 in advance, but admission and entertainment is on the house thanks to aggressive fundraising from a team led by the ever-ebullient event founder and City Councilman Steve McShane.

“That’s the best part!” he enthuses. “People don’t realize that – if you want to taste wine, fine – but the event is free. This is cool.”

The debut of 201 Main’s different pieces will be staggered. Kehoe conservatively estimates phase one, the deli and Italian restaurant, to happen Oct. 16.

Some insiders say it’ll need more time. I think it’s easy to naysay Salinas (and, for the record, even easier to condemn the festival’s dismal run so far).

But as one who’s sunk his teeth deeply into Salinas’ Oldtown flavor-rich renaissance – and have the tasting notes from 2014 debuts Patria (handmade spaetzle with browned butter! Butternut squash pizza!) and Dubber’s Bar and Grill (“pad Thai” salad! Mac-n-cheese-n-bacon fries!) to prove it – I don’t care exactly when it opens. I’m thrilled that, for a much-maligned but big-hearted city, it will happen, and happen soon.

Like Giannuzzi says, “I can’t wait to start. There are a lot of things going on there.”


• Strange tides continue at iconic Rocky Point with… Bill Lee now in as GM. More at

• Chef Chad Minton is the new exec chef at Pacific’s Edge after time with Gary Danko at the Ritz in S.F. and his own Michelin-starred spot Jerne in Marina Del Rey. To the blog for more.

• The Monterey Planning Commission will consider outdoor seating for Montrio and Lalla Fish, the new project from the Lalla family on Cannery Row.

• Amir’s Grill and Bar (formerly Amir’s Kebab House) on Lighthouse up from Gianni’s is open again. More on the blog.

•Twenty restaurants like Affina and Aubergine join 25 or so wineries like Albatross Ridge and Alexander-Smith for Taste of Carmel ($95, Oct. 2 at Carmel Mission.

• PF Chang’s paints its horse pink Tuesday and it stays that way for October, when $1 for every sushi sold goes to Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation.

Monterey Beer Garden happens Saturday. See p. 28.

• Congrats Jeff and Abby Condit, a newlywed pair unlike any out there.

• Artist/comedian/Monterey native Nick “The Lick” Stoeberl has a Guinness Book world record longest tongue 3.97 inches from tip to the middle of closed top lip.

•Had an incredible Reese’s Pieces waffle at Holly’s Lighthouse Café (372-7006) in P.G. Place is well worth the wait.

• Gardeners: The Marina dump (384-5313) hosts a free sheet mulching workshop 10-11:30am Sept. 27.

• Happy Girl Kitchen Co. (373-4475) celebrates their parklet noon-2pm Thursday, Sept. 25, with free pickles.

•Something different on the menu: Pacific Grove’s Grand Ave Deli (375-7474) brings in showbiz veteran Luke Martin and his ensemble Sept. 27.

•In case you missed it: there’s some must-read Yelp righteousness from my colleague at SF Weekly Anna Roth. Here’s a taste:”My parole officer agrees with me – this place is incredible,” Han W.yelps. “And by incredible, I mean unbelievably bad. Almost as bad as small businesses being extorted by Yelp to pay up or suffer unfair reviews.”


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