Something new and enticing is coming to Donnelly: an Italian restaurant featuring northern Italian cuisine prepared by well-known local chef Steve Topple. Crispy artichokes, butternut squash tortellini, bison risotto, lamb gnocchi or beef Florentine at reasonable prices, anyone? And this: family hour from 5:00-6:00 pm when each $10 entree – giant beef meatball, seared chicken breast, or salmon piccata – is served with garlic bread. “The price points are for the locals,” says Topple. “I want to serve good food that’s affordable. This is really important for me, to provide a restaurant where you can bring the family and afford something great.”
Ragazza Di Bufalo will have its grand opening Wednesday, August 29th, with regular lunch and dinner service (dinners 5:00-9:00pm Thursday through Monday; lunch 11:00am-2:00pm Friday-Sunday). The restaurant is located at 319 Main Street in Donnelly, in the building that formerly housed the Buffalo Gal restaurant and inspired Topple’s restaurant’s name. Ragazza is Italian for girl and bufalo is, of course, buffalo. Menus are printed over a background of buffalo hoof prints. The restaurant has a beer and wine license, and Topple plans to offer a selection of Italian and Northwest wines.
“I want to fill a void in our area,” says Topple in explaining his choosing to create a restaurant featuring Italian food. He won’t be serving pizza. Topple will make his own pastas from scratch and locally source as many of his ingredients as possible, for example getting beef from Idaho’s Butler Grass Fed and cheese from Ballard Family Dairy and Cheese in Gooding. There will be daily specials, and Topple is known from his presentations of trout, venison and lamb.
Maintaining His Accent Topple, age 42, hails from England. After spending three years in culinary school – twice the normal length of training in England – including an advanced fine dining specialty, at age 21 Topple decided to come to the United States to hone his skills. “I found the food here more exciting, enticing,” says Topple, a nod to the old saw about England’s boring food. “Now England has amazing restaurants,” he quickly adds, but back in 1999 he felt the states was where he needed to be.
He first worked in a restaurant in Lake Placid, in the Adirondack Mountains of New York where the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics were held. “It’s a ski area and also has summer activities. I love hiking. It’s similar to McCall, except their trees turn colors in autumn there.”
From Lake Placid Topple went to the other coast, landing a job with world-renowned chef Wolfgang Puck in San Francisco. “It was eye-opening, working for him,” says Topple. “We’d serve 300 for lunch and dinner, good quality food for high volume. There was a good team in the kitchen. I was there a year and it was a good experience.”
Topple then returned to the east coast, taking a position at Sea Island Resort, Georgia. “It’s a stunning resort,” says Topple. “The sort of place where a butler meets guests at the car, ushers them in, unpacks their suitcases for them. It’s five-star, top of the line. Lots of shrimp and seafood. I became a bit famous for my trout there.”
From Sea Island Topple moved to Vail, Colorado, where he stayed from 2003 to 2013, working at three different restaurants. In 2013, Topple took the position of head chef at Shore Lodge/Whitetail, overseeing operations for all eight restaurants. In 2015 he returned to Vail for 18 months, then came back to Whitetail in June 2016, overseeing its four restaurants for its private members.
“While working at Shore Lodge, I developed a good reputation with the public,” says Topple. Working just at Whitetail’s restaurants was different, cooking only for a private clientele, almost like being a personal chef. Those who remembered him from his Shore Lodge days missed him. “People wanted me to cook for their parties. Eventually friends urged me to take over the Buffalo Gal location.” Topple’s last day at Whitetail will be August 25th, leaving him barely any time to catch his breath before the grand opening of Ragazza Di Bufalo on August 29th. But that’s how Topple planned it. “I’m excited. This is a dream come true. I’ve always had a dream to own a restaurant.” Whitetail is sorry to see him go, in fact wanted him to stay, says Topple, but he is determined to fulfill his dream. “I’m excited to be in Donnelly.”
Topple thoroughly enjoys living in McCall with his two English springer spaniels, Lucy and Jack. “I’ve always loved mountains, and the people here are fantastic. I love living in a small town, seeing people in the grocery store. The idea of my own restaurant here came from bumping into people, them telling me I needed to open my own restaurant because they were fans of my cooking.” Given Topple’s love of hiking and snowboarding – he learned while at Lake Placid, at Whiteface, or as locals there call it, Iceface – it makes sense to stay in McCall while realizing his dream. “This is such a beautiful place. I’m blown away every day,” he says.
Topple’s mother, who lives in England, will be arriving for the restaurant’s grand opening. They have a close relationship – “She’s my everything” he says – and he credits their many trips to Italy together for inspiring his love of Italian cooking and a desire to open an Italian restaurant. In addition to his mother’s visits to the states every couple of years, Topple returns to England every year if possible, not just to see his mum and brother but also to maintain his accent. “I’ve spent half of my life in the states; I’m afraid of losing my English accent! When I go home to England, I’m told I sound American.”
Getting Ready There have been challenges getting the building ready for the opening of Ragazza Di Bufalo. Pipes froze last winter, causing interior flooding. “The prior layout was kitchen-heavy,” says Topple. “It was three-fourths kitchen; it’s more fifty-fifty now, and I’ve created a group room where 12-15 people can have privacy. There are new walls, floors, paint; it’s more modern and fresher.” Topple admits that his biggest challenge so far was the remodel. “It was a blank canvas; I’m able to put my own stamp on it.” Staffing will also be a challenge, as it is for all local restaurants, but Topple is optimistic on that score. “I have a following of staff who enjoy working with me,” he says. “I’m not a chef who screams or throws things in the kitchen! A couple Whitetail employees will be coming along with me.”
Topple’s open to changes in operations as he sees how things work and where demand is. Hours could be extended, for example. If demand for lunch is strong, he may expand that to additional days. On the days he’s closed – Tuesday and Wednesday – he may consider hosting special parties or even doing some catering. He’s already planning a Wine Maker’s Dinner for October 20th, featuring a collection of Italian wines from a wine importer. For a set price, diners will enjoy four courses and wine. “The next one might feature Northwest wines,” says Topple. “I want to make it an experience, trying new wines with great food.”
Online Reservations and Ordering You can make a reservation for lunch or dinner online, by calling 208-325-DINE, logging onto the restaurant’s website, or with an app called OpenTable. “Reservations are strongly recommended,” says Topple, noting that his first two nights are already fully booked. “I don’t want people to drive down and be disappointed!”
Ragazza Di Bufalo can seat up to 48, so it’s not a large restaurant, making reservations important during busy times like summer and holidays. Topple figures that in the off-season he’ll serve maybe 30 dinners a night, and when things are busy, as many as a hundred.
Topple is also offering online ordering of meals through his website which can be picked up at the restaurant (Ragazza Di Bufalo doesn’t deliver), a nice feature for people driving in from out of town for a few days, or locals heading home after a long day’s work or day of playing in the forest.
What the Future May Hold Once Ragazza Di Bufalo is launched and sailing smoothly, maybe we’ll see Chef Topple on local TV again. Early in his career Topple worked with a famous British TV chef named Brian Turner, and later with Wolfgang Puck who had his own TV show, so he has lots of experience cooking for a TV audience. Topple has been featured on Good Morning Idaho, Good Morning Vail, and a Denver news station cooking segment. “Live TV is a buzz,” says Topple. “Red light on the camera, three minutes to do a presentation. It’s a different buzz than preparing 100 plates. It’s an adrenaline buzz, not for everyone but I enjoy it.”
Spending time talking with Topple about his restaurant, and food, it quickly becomes apparent how passionate he is about his vocation. But it wasn’t his first choice. “I love aviation; I’m an aviation geek,” Topple confesses. “I thought I would be a pilot. At sixteen I took flying lessons, given to me as birthday and Christmas presents by my parents. I flew a Cessna 152. But it turns out I’m slightly colorblind to greens and reds, even though I can see green grass or a red tablecloth just fine. Still, major airlines wouldn’t have hired me, so I gave up that dream. I haven’t flown since.”
Yet Topple doesn’t seem disappointed to find himself here in McCall, an experienced and sought-after chef of fine dining cuisine, pursuing an equally soaring dream: his own restaurant. To Chef Topple I say, “Buona cucina” (happy cooking), and to his customers at Ragazza Di Bufalo, buon appetito!
You can find a link to Pam Benham’s photography website on the McCall Digest Business Director.