California cuisine in this decade is all about fresh, seasonal ingredients with detailed nods to your local purveyors. In the heart of wine country, this message is clearly showcased in Oenotri, which opened in spring 2010.
Located in downtown Napa (same city as the other locavore-centric restaurant, Ubuntu), Oenotri is a modern Italian restaurant with wood-fire pizzas and house-made charcuterie. Its emphasis on seasonal and local ingredients isn’t a surprise since the co-chefs and owners are Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde, who met each other while working at Oakland’s Oliveto.
I got the chance to dine at Oenotri (pronounced OWN-no-tree) when my niece Margot was visiting and I rented a car to take her to wine country. We ended our day at the spacious dining room of Oenotri, with a wide, open kitchen and handsome dining room fitted with wooden tables that looked like they were made from reclaimed wood.
The menu is quite extensive, starting with the multiple offerings of salumi and other cured meats. To simplify matters, we went with the Chef’s Selection of six items ($18). I can’t recall the specific names of what we were served, but remembered that there was at least one paté and a prosciutto. The plate was beautifully presented with some toasted flatbread and toasted almonds, and the salumi was a nice mix of mild to spicy flavors. They were all very enjoyable, and quite a lot for two people.
Even though we could see the brick oven firing away pizzas at the far end of the restaurant, both my niece and I went with pasta dishes. Margot got the tagliatelle ($16.50), which was filling with broccoli and Cotechino sausages, while I enjoyed a beautiful plate of wild nettle conchigle ($16) filled with pumpkin and simply dressed with brown butter and sage.
I went on to a secondi course with the scaloppine of Willis Farm pork ($27), which was thinly sliced pork layered into a small pile and surrounded by a plate of luscious flagelot beans, the rich flavors of the beans and pork combining to create a hearty taste.
While Oenotri prides itself on its local sourcing and daily-changing menu, it may have created a big challenge for its wait staff. Our server, in particular, seemed to have difficulty explaining the intricacies of the menu. He’d often simplify his explanations, probably thinking he’s helping the diners cut to the chase, but in reality he’s missing a chance to educate the diners on the efforts of the chefs.
For example, my niece’s pasta dish included Cotechino sausages, and I was curious what kind of sausages they were. The server’s answer was it’s a Venetian-style sausage. And I wanted to know what that meant – what exactly is the technique that makes Venetian sausages different than other Italian sausages? In the end, he just said it’s a pork sausage, reducing the Cotechino to any old common sausage. (But when eating it, I detected a lot of nice herbs that I would have liked to have learned more about.)
I overheard another table nearby ask other questions about the menu and saw the server again give overly simple answers that left some of the diners looking more confused.
Despite the service, I felt the kitchen really delivered in both tastes and presentation. (I also give credit to the excellent pacing that kept all the dishes arriving hot to the table.) The only trip-up probably would be dessert, where the pastry chef was experimenting with putting a cannoli on the menu for the first time. The ricotta cream filling was light and airy, but the shell was hard as rock. I couldn’t even crack it open with my fork and I literally had to pick it up with my fingers to take a bite because I couldn’t spear it with any utensils.
Still, I was enamored by the warm space and interesting menu Oenotri has introduced to Napa Valley. While some of the servers may need more time educating themselves on what’s coming out of the kitchen, I expect the chefs will continue to evolve and enhance the dining experience of everyone who enters.
Rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
Oenotri, 1425 First St., Napa. PH: 707.252.1022. Open for weekday lunch and dinner daily from 5:30 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. oenotri.com
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