A tavola: Rustic at Francis Ford Coppola Winery

A family-style meal takes it one step further: The family is included.

Uncle Enrico pulls his chair up to to the table, smiles that charming half-grin of his and starts singing about the old days in Rome like Sinatra. While the kids all roll their eyes and mom grins knowingly, you can’t help but notice Cousin Giorgio in the background chewing that toothpick like he always does and filling everyone’s glasses with wine. Too bad he’s your cousin. And maybe it’s time to talk with Great Aunt Christine about that sixth martini she’s been nursing.

This is your family. At least for tonight.

Part dinner and part theater, this weekly experience launched in late January at Francis Ford Coppola’s ever-expanding Geyserville winery. Housed in restaurant, Rustic, it’s an experiment in family dining — with the family already built in. Though you may enter a stranger, the whole point of Coppola’s weekly “a tavola” is to leave as part of the famiglia.

How it works: There are no menus, no ordering. A hostess seats you (ours had a martini glass the whole night) and explains the concept. You’re in her kitchen and her family will serve you whatever she’s been cooking. Like any good Italian mama, she’s made a lot — about 20 dishes ranging from steak, pork loin and shrimp scampi to polenta, Caesar salad, green beans, beef ravioli, wild Scottish salmon, sweet sausage and, well, the list just goes on. And most of it tastes like your own Italian grandma made it.

“Family members” drop by the table on a rotating basis to see if you’d like whatever they’re serving up. Yes? However many servings you want are placed on communal plates in the center of the table and your card is noted. $7 a serving for proteins (like steak); $5 for pastas and $3 for sides. You can eat as much or as little as you like. Hint: Pace yourself. A bag of warm zeppole are brought to share when you sit down, and the food parade rarely stops from there.

For the dramatically squeamish, the concept isn’t quite as hokey or embarrassingly interactive as you might expect. As someone who refuses to play charades or engage in any sort of “interactive” theater, I can say with confidence that the cringe factor is low. In fact, it all feels pretty natural.

The staff work hard to stay in character, but also get the joke (Uncle Enrico told us he was working hard on his fake Italian accent). No one pushes it past the comfort zone, instead letting you dictate how much or little you want to engage.

So think of it as your weekly family dinner. Great food, great company, and plenty of wine. And while there isn’t a grocery bag full of foil-wrapped of leftovers, your weird cousin asking for a loan or a trunk of hand-me-downs waiting for you at the door (like your real family) you also get to sneak away without anyone pinching your cheek or telling you to call more often.
A tavola is held every Tuesday night from 5-9pm at Rustic, in the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. The event is quickly booking up, so reservations are strongly recommended. 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, (707) 857-1485.