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Beignet, or bignè? Napa’s Ca’ Momi has the answer

The bignès are on the second shelf of the bakery case.
The bignès are on the second shelf of the bakery case.Photo by Kevin Nelson

When you travel you come across many strange sights, things you are not ordinarily used to seeing, and so it was the other day when I found myself in front of a bakery case at Ca’ Momi Enoteca, the gourmet pizza restaurant in the Oxbow Public Market in Napa.

Ca’ Momi is proudly and “obsessively”—as its own advertising says—Italian. Its pizza is certified as authentically Neapolitan. Its cheeses and cured meats are imported from Italy. Even the restaurant’s name refers to an Italian family home.

So what the heck is it doing making beignets? For this is what I saw in the case in front of me: beignets and more beignets, a whole shelf full of them. They looked delicious but as everyone knows, beignets are about as Italian as a crepe or a Truffaut movie. Beignets are French, or of French origin, most popularly associated in this country with New Orleans cuisine.

Then I looked a little closer. These were not beignets, I discovered, rather they were bignès. They were spelled differently, with a reverse accent mark on the e, and pronounced a little differently too. They were an Italian form of the pastry that turned my expectations on their head.

A New Orleans-style beignet is a pretty puff of deep-fried dough lightly scented with vanilla and with powdered sugar on top. Ideally you eat it quick, when it is still warm. But the bignès at Ca Momi more resembled cream puffs—baked, with flavored cream filling in the center.

I had never eaten a bignè before, only a beignet, so I asked the clerk behind the case what she’d recommend. “I like the honey and milk,” she said helpfully. “That’s our most popular, I’d say. I also like the chocolate. They’re really good too.”

I ordered a bunch of them—honey and milk, chocolate, strawberry and coffee (with a coffee bean on top), each costing $1-$2—and walked away feeling like I’d not only scored with dessert but that I had learned something too. That is indeed one of the best things about going to new places: the chance to do new things, to expand your world and your vocabulary, to try a different sort of bignè than you’ve ever had before.

Ca’ Momi, 610 First St., Oxbow Market, Napa. Open daily 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. 707-257-4992. (You’ll find excellent pizzas there as well; along with our bignès we had Contadina ($16) and Pancetta ($17), both tasty.)