If you thought Napa’s newest restaurant, Oenotri, would offer just another California slant on Italian cookery, you’ve got another think coming.
Chef/partners Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde have made good on their promise to celebrate the cuisine of southern Italy, namely the lands that make up the “toe,” “shin” and “heel” of the geographical “boot” — Puglia, Basilicata, Campania and Calabria — with a loving nod to the island of Sicily.
Barely two weeks into their culinary collaboration, Di Fede and Rodde are attracting huge dinnertime crowds with a dizzying array of salumi — all produced in house — veritable Neapolitan pizza, and a distinctive selection of antipasti and pasta not found on any other menu around town. Definitely no red checkered tablecloth and candle-stuffed Chianti bottles at this trattoria.
Located across from the new Avia Hotel at First and Franklin streets, Oenotri (pronounced oh-no-tree) takes its name from the ancient Oscan word for vine cultivator. The Oscans predated the Romans and were eventually replaced by them. They lived in the area on which this new eatery’s menu focuses.
For example, folks from Campania’s Benevento would feel right at home with a bowl of Oenotri’s lamb sugo-tossed radiatore topped with grated caciocavallo cheese.
Residents of Italy’s Mezzogiorno could be counted on to give thumbs up for the kitchen’s bucatini all’Amatriciana. The hollow spaghetti-like pasta, tossed with a zesty pancetta and tomato sauce, is commonly associated with Lazio and Rome, but is actually from the town of Amatrice, which was just over the border into the Abruzzo before Mussolini redrew the maps.
Sicilians will undoubtedly lick the plate of wild nettle pennette flavored with paper-thin slices of pancetta-like cured lonza. We inquired about this most unusual dish and found the chefs had tossed a few bunches of nettles — a highly regarded herb in the world of herbal medicine — into boiling water for about an hour. Then the wilted leaves were pureed, mixed with semolina and water and the resulting paste was extruded into tiny pasta shapes. The pennette were then prepared as one would prepare risotto. Topped with a couple of slices of cured meat — to give the dish added richness — the result is a vivid green bowl of goodness.
Long macaroni tubes, mostaccioli — and on some occasions, tongue-twisting strozzapreti (Italian for priest stranglers) — get generous ladles of pork ragu and gratings of pecorino cheese, a primi piatti you’d expect to see a Calabrese closely guarding.
Tasting like a cross of artichoke and celery, cardoon slices top a mound of ink-braised squid and squid ink linguine — one of the most intense, briny renditions of the dish I’ve encountered. A must for fans of Sicily’s nero de seppia.
And that’s just the pasta options offered a few nights ago. The restaurant’s been open less than two weeks and already the pasta menu has changed four times, the partners boast.
“We’ve been excited about putting together a restaurant where you could go two days in a row and not see the same menu — and also not spend a fortune,” Rodde declared at the end of service the other evening.
Prices are reasonable not only for pasta ($14-$16.50). The pizzas (ideal for two to share as a first course) are listed at $12 (Margherita) to $15.50 (mozzarella, ricotta, fava leaves and walnut pesto). Antipasti range from $9 for fresh garden greens and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano with a spritz or two of Meyer lemon to $14 for a Calabrian take on vitello tonnato — here hen breast coins and flavorful spring ceci (chickpeas) slathered with addictive tuna mayonnaise. Additional choices might include a rabbit confit salad, garden-sweet spring pea soup or a colorful plate of roasted beets, fennel and navel oranges napped with pistachio sauce.
As excited as we are about the pasta, pizza and antipasti, let’s not give short shrift to one of Oenotri’s main attractions — the eye-opening, mouth-watering salumi menu, with a plethora of both dry cured and cooked-and-formed meats.
While the partners grew up in Napa Valley — and even competed on the same swim team — they didn’t hook up, culinarily speaking, until both worked for the acclaimed Oliveto restaurant in the East Bay. It’s here that Di Fede and Rodde caught the salumi bug.
There are more than a dozen and a half salumi offerings — might we recommend the mace/clove-accented Nostrano, the saffron/grappa notes of Sardegna and the sweet anise and aromatic garlic flavors of Soppresatta. You can try three of the salumi for 10 bucks, a half dozen for $14, 10 for $18 or the whole kit and caboodle for $60. Add a plate of crusty sourdough and a bottle of Tasca d’Almerita nero d’avola and you’re set.
Should you still be hungry, the partners are only too happy to dish up a plate of pork sausage and Italian butter beans ($19.50); roasted black cod, oranges and olives from the fortress town of Gaeta overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea ($24); or Watson Farm spring lamb spezzatino (stew) with rapini, garlic and spicy peppers.
Lively space, lovely wines
All of this lipsmacking and sipping takes place in a lively industrial space on the first floor of Napa Square, home as well to adjacent Norman Rose Tavern.
Track lighting, unfinished ceiling, open kitchen framed by a collection of hanging pots and pans, brick walls and a full bar tucked into one corner contribute to the casual hustle and bustle as a busy team of servers dashes hither, thither and yon to accommodate the crush of hungry diners.
One of the attractive features of the dining room is the fact that dining tables are quite large, substantial enough to accommodate the large plate of salumi that most diners are ordering. And the partners are pleased as punch to have found an aptly named “linguine puttanesca” fabric for the colorful upholstery used on dining room chairs.
Continuing with the “nothing ordinary” theme displayed at Napa’s new downtown eatery is the wine list — a treasure trove of some of Italy’s great wines, a collection from Umbria to Sicily gathered by the ingratiating, well-informed sommelier, Sur Lucero.
You could be dazzled by the food-friendly Cerasuolo ($35) from Sicily’s Planeta, with its blend of strawberries and cherries and a hint of fig. Or you might dive right into one of the best barberas on the planet, from the Piemonte cellars of La Spinetta ($40), with its mouthful of plums and cherries. How about a unique, spicy lagrein from Alto Adige’s Raetia, Arnaldo Caprai’s Montefalco Rosso ($35) with a generous blend of the wonderful sagrantino grape or an Apulian primitivo from Vinosia ($22). Tried-and-true producers like Aldo Conterno, Donnafugata, Tasca d’Almerita, Mastroberardino and Ceretto are represented as well.
If you want to stay true to local offerings, order up a rosé from Ceja, chardonnay from Pahlmeyer, cabernet franc from Larkin or a Chappellet cabernet sauvignon.
There are 25 wines with price tags $25 or under, including Argiolas vermentino, Inama Soave Classico and a nebbiolo d’Alba from Damilano. For a first-rate celebration, you can opt for a couple of exceptional sparklers from northern Italy’s Franciacorta — Ca’ del Bosco or Bellavista — without breaking the bank.
Because there are so many Italian wines on the extensive list — many that a lot of us know nothing about — Lucero is more than happy to spend as much time as you’d like in choosing the perfect bottle — or two — to accompany your meal. It would appear he’s camped out in more than one Italian wine cellar lately.
General manager Lauren Duncan, a veteran of Bay Area dining establishments, is eager to take reservations for dinner, in order to avoid long waits as the walk-ins crowd the cozy bar.
At present, Di Fede and Rodde are serving dinner only, between 5:30 and 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. From end of service until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, there’s a late night menu of salumi and pizza. The partners expect to add lunch service some time in May.
For reservations, call 252-1022. Oenotri is located at 1425 First St., Napa.