Twentysomethings grounded in food at an early age, Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde are living the dream.
Eager to have their own restaurant before they turned 30, the two Napans opened the hot, new downtown eatery, Oenotri, a month ago. Neither long days nor stubbed toes have dampened spirits or wiped the perpetual smiles from their faces.
Both young chefs grew up in families that ate well. Rodde prepared dishes for parents and siblings before he was 10. With roots in southern Italy on both sides of his family, Di Fede says visiting relatives in Sicily at age 15 reinforced his desire to cook for a living.
While they spent formative years in the valley, Di Fede and Rodde did take time elsewhere to hone their craft.
But when it came time to decide where to locate the first restaurant they could call their own, the partners returned to the valley they know so well.
Oenotri (pronounced oh-no-tree) celebrates the food of Campania, Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia, as well as the island of Sicily, distinct regions of southern Italy.
Located in Napa Square across from the new Avia Hotel at First and Franklin streets, the restaurant is named for an ancient Oscan term for vine cultivator. Fascinated by a culture that thrived in southern Italy around 1000 B.C., the partners maintain the restaurant’s Oscan name pays tribute to the early settlers of Campania and surrounding lands and one of the early Italic languages. As Rome conquered territory occupied by Oscans, it assimilated the Oscan people into the Roman world.
Oenotri’s menu spotlights pizza, pasta and housemade salumi, a process the partners learned while working at the acclaimed Oakland restaurant, Oliveto Restaurant and Cafe.
Hospitality in his veins?
Although he’s a self-effacing guy, Curtis Di Fede could spend considerable time bragging about one very well-known, respected member of his family, on his father’s side. A man with great foresight who knew the value of inviting tourists to wine country, Fred Abruzzini was Di Fede’s great-grandfather.
Winemaker and general manager at Beringer Brothers, as it was called then, Abruzzini began inviting guests such as Tom Mix, Clark Gable, Edgar Bergen and Jack Dempsey for well-publicized tours in the 1930s and 1940s. He opened Beringer Brothers’ grounds for the filming of “They Knew What They Wanted,” starring Charles Laughton and Carole Lombard. Following a tradition established by Napa vintners at early expositions, Abruzzini organized a wine temple on Treasure Island for the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939, but added something new. A map guided visitors across the newly constructed Golden Gate and Oakland Bay bridges to the valley.
“His side of the family is from Calabria. I remember him talking to me in Italian and teaching me lots of tricks with coins.
“My father was born in Palermo, Sicily, and came here when he was 3 or 4 years old. I went to visit our relatives there when I was 15. I really liked how they ate, the fresh vegetables, the fish and how things were prepared. When I came home I wanted to do what they did with all those fresh ingredients. But in the middle of New Mexico, the only fresh things are the chiles.”
Born in Fort Collins, Colo., where his father was football coach at Colorado State, Di Fede spent all of his Christmas holidays in St. Helena where relatives on both sides of the family still reside.
“We moved around a lot because of my father’s career,” he adds, noting that his dad also coached at Iowa State and New Mexico State. “I graduated from high school in Los Cruces.”
The vacation in Sicily inspired Di Fede to pursue a career in culinary arts. After high school, he spent six months working at Tatsu, a Benihana-style restaurant in Las Cruces.
“I wanted to go to culinary school so I did a lot of research (about curriculum and related costs). I found one I liked in London (England) ... so at 19 I signed up and was away from home for the first time. The dollar was pretty strong in 2000, so it was a great time to be in Europe. It was a nine-month program, but I stayed on for another four months for an internship at a London restaurant.”
Di Fede returned to the states and spent a month in the valley before accepting a job opening New Orleans-based Commander’s Palace in Las Vegas. “We had huge numbers — 800 covers a night, and it was high quality food. I stayed there for two years before deciding Vegas was not the place for me.”
He came back to the valley for a job at Bouchon in Yountville, working with chefs Jeff Cerciello and Josh Schwartz. He spent an average of four days a week working in the Bouchon kitchen, and another one day per week in Thomas Keller’s kitchen at The French Laundry.
“I was re-inspired to cook by Hiro Sone at Terra,” Di Fede said of his two-year stint at the St. Helena restaurant. “I really liked his farm-to-table program and his menu.”
The 29-year-old chef next returned to England to cook at a Michelin three-star restaurant, The Fat Duck, in Bray, just outside London.
Six months later, he seriously injured a hand and took some time off, touring Sardinia, Sicily and Calabria, and, of course, eating and learning about regional cuisines. “I really fell in love with southern Italy this time,” he recalled.
When he returned to the Bay Area, Di Fede walked into the acclaimed Oliveto restaurant and told chef Paul Canales “all I want to do is make salumi. He hired me, trained me and eventually I took over the salumi making.”
Two years later, Tyler Rodde showed up.
Eager to cook
A Vintage High graduate, Napa native Tyler Rodde contends living in wine country inspired him to seek a career in the restaurant business.
“I was always interested in cooking growing up,” he said the other day as he and his staff geared up for another night of wining and dining hungry locals.
One of four children (one brother and two sisters), Rodde said his family hosted large holiday parties where he and his siblings were expected to contribute one dish each to the repast.
“I think I was 8 years old when I made my first Caesar salad ... I’m sure everybody liked it.”
His first serious effort in the hospitality industry came during college. “I worked in a cafe and beer bar for a while — I really enjoyed being in the kitchen,” he recalls.
“It was then that I made the decision to go to culinary school, to make that my life’s direction. I really enjoyed working with my hands. I think I also liked the fact that there was always something to learn (about food and cooking). I found it gratifying to be on a never-ending educational quest.”
However, Rodde readily admits he’s a culinary school dropout. He tried to cram too much into 24 hours and nearly flamed out, so to speak.
“I had a job working for the Peter Michael Winery Foundation in the LA area, I was working at a restaurant and I was attending the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena,” Rodde advised. “I was maintaining 14- to 18-hour days for three months and I knew I just couldn’t sustain that pace — even at 21 years old I couldn’t keep it going.
“I felt I could always go back to school, and I was actually working in a (restaurant) kitchen. Since I was paying $3,300 a month for school, it was the first thing to go.”
Rodde wound up not long thereafter a partner in a restaurant in the LA area. When his partner suggested Rodde buy out his share so he could return to his native Serbia to look after an ailing parent, the restaurant went on the market. “I knew I couldn’t operate a restaurant on my own, so we sold it.”
He next turned to the corporate world, signing on with the Cheesecake Factory to serve as kitchen manager for its Palo Alto, Corte Madera and San Francisco stores.
“I learned that in this business it’s important being able to speak Spanish so that you can manage the operation in a couple of languages.” He spent about two years with that organization before deciding he needed to “re-learn how to cook.”
That decision brought Rodde to Oakland and Oliveto.
Although Di Fede and Rodde spent formative years in wine country — even swimming on the same team — they didn’t really know one another until they teamed up in the kitchen at Oliveto where Di Fede had already spent two years.
“Curtis was my first friend on the first day,” Rodde recalled.
“Yeah, I was giving him some pointers on his commute (to Oakland) from Napa,” Di Fede added.
“We became close, fast friends,” Rodde agreed.
It wasn’t long before both young men confided in one another dreams of owning their own restaurant. “This was both our dreams,” said Di Fede. “We both knew we couldn’t do it by ourselves.
“We knew our strengths and our weaknesses and we felt we could complement both if we did it together,” Rodde declared.
They first broached the subject of opening a restaurant together three years ago, spent a year brainstorming and another year searching for the right location. “We looked primarily in the Napa Valley, from Calistoga to American Canyon,” Rodde said.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do was cook and have a successful business,” Di Fede insisted.
“We want people to come in and enjoy the food — and to have it affordable so they feel they can come in once a week not just once a month.”
No pig in a poke
Open barely a month, Oenotri has proven to be a hit with locals as well as valley visitors.
The daily salumi menu offers at least a dozen and a half selections, an offering that has been extremely popular with diners.
A month ago for the opening, the partners were ordering one pig a week for dry-cured and cooked salumi. Any day now, the order will go out for two pigs per week.
“We got in a beautiful yellowtail jack today from Monterey Fish, line caught the day before in San Diego,” Di Fede beamed. “I’m getting two pigs tomorrow, incredible lamb the next day ... I’m excited.”
Repeat diners can see that excitement reflected in the menu, which changes every day. From subtle changes in the pizza and antipasti lineup to a continuously evolving selection of sizes, textures and sauces for the toothsome southern Italian pasta dishes, the Oenotri menu reflects the zeal with which the partners tackle daily chores and challenges.
The partners have found a kindred spirit in pastry chef Jennifer Dolence, a native of Wyoming who moved to California four years ago, transferring from the New England Culinary Institute to CIA Greystone.
“She’s a beautiful addition to the team,” Di Fede advised. “I like how she’s incorporating bitter, salty and sour into desserts. It complements what we’re doing on the rest of the menu.”
From herbs freshly picked in Napa gardens to imported cheeses and olive oils from Italy’s Mezzogiorno, from roasted Morro Bay swordfish with toasted pistachios to wild nettle linguine with white Georgia shrimp, the bill of fare at Oenotri is as remarkable as it is mouthwatering.
Keeping with their goal of affordability, the partners feel they’ll never price anything higher than $27 a plate — and that will be one of the daily changing trio of secondi, or main courses.
Pizza is generally in the $12 to $15 range and antipasti are priced between $9 and $13.50. Reflecting the dishes of Puglia, Calabria, Campania, Basilicata and Sicily, pastas range from $14 to $16.50.
Bringing considerable knowledge and an attractive cellar of both Italian and local wines to the operation is Oenotri’s ingratiating sommelier, Sur Lucero.
The bustling staff is under the direction of genial general manager Lauren Duncan.
At present, Oenotri is serving dinner only, between 5:30 and 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, until 10 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. From end of service until at least midnight on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, there’s a late-night menu of salumi and pizza. The partners expect to add lunch service some time this summer. But first, they’ll add some four dozen seats to the 67 in the dining room when they add patio service in May.
For reservations, call 252-1022. Oenotri is at 1425 First St., Napa.
Di Fede is sharing with Register readers today his recipe for Crostone of Spicy Coppa Confit with Avocado, Arugula and Garlic Sherry Vinaigrette. Pasty chef Jennifer Dolence shares her recipe for Wild Fennel Panna Cotta with Strawberries and Hoji Blanca Olive Oil.