Friday, September 2, 2011


         A week ago I peeked into Oenotri, a little bit of Italia in Napa.  It has a long bar open to the kitchen, with a rack of pots and pans overhead. Arriving for lunch, I saw that one person had taken the two lone seats at the long counter. I moseyed over to the real bar, that is where liquor is served. Unfortunately the restaurant and the patio were nearly empty, so my only conversation was with Steve, the young bartender. Oenotri just started serving lunch in June--perhaps it hasn't caught on yet.
          Before I get to the food,  I  have to laugh about constant references to this recently developed area of First Street as the "west end." It isn't even a quarter of a mile from First and Main--it's three blocks.   If this is the west end, then what is Browns Valley, some three miles west of here but still in Napa?
          I started with the wine list and despite the price ($13) had to try a Slovenian wine.  Steve, who clearly enjoys his job and is proud of the restaurant, gave me a taste before committing me to a glass. Its name is daunting: Ribolla Gialla by Edi Simcic, Rubikon, Goriska Brda. At least the Rubikon sounds familiar! Wikipedia tells me Brda is a region of Slovenia and the grapes are commonly grown in Italy.  A pale gold medium-bodied white, it  lacked the strong oakiness of the chardonnays I avoid. An excellent choice and a generous serving.
          A glance at the menu told me the fare here is not what usually makes me salivate. Of the twelve items on the daily changing lunch menu, seven included sausage or pancetta. Then there was steak, lamb and rabbit. So if you're not into meat or eating cuddly animals, Oenotri might not be for you. The menu hails from the southern parts of Italy's boot.  Steve explained they smoke and cure all the meat themselves. They butcher a pig once a week on site and sell a large variety of in-house salumi (salami). The chefs, Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde,  source their food supplies locally, including the gardens at Copia.
          I ordered the Nadia eggplant parmigiano panini, which included basil, tomato sauce and mozzarella. A comforting and delicious sandwich. Rather than that flattened toasted bread most folks call panini, the sandwich was served on a warm, crunchy roll. The eggplant had been lightly breaded and fried--crisp on the outside but soft and smooth on the inside. It was like the best meatball sandwich you could imagine only with eggplant instead of meat. On the same plate came simple garden lettuces,  with a mix of oil and vinegar which couldn't have been more perfect. I nearly inhaled this sandwich, pausing once in a while to sip my wine.
          Steve informed me that oenotri  means vine cultivators and goes back to before ancient Rome. The portrait on the wall above the brick oven is of  Curtis Di Fede's great uncle. There is a very authentic feel to the  Oenotri experience. The pizza oven was imported from Naples. The space itself is simple--high ceilings, brick walls.  The kitchen staff were easily observed cutting meat, and one held up what looked like a bag of sous vide vegetables. I would have loved to try their polenta, served at dinner, with your choice of parmigiano-reggiano, crescenza or gorgonzola cheeses. I bet it's fantastic.
          The honey panna cotta   was my choice for dessert, served with kadota figs and croccante dolce. I usually don't go for desserts that shimmy like jello on the plate coming towards me, but this panna cotta's  flavor was absolutely heavenly--it made me think of an infant dreaming of mother's milk. It had just the right amount of sweetness from the honey, divine with the beautiful pink fig slices.
          So meat eaters, check this place out. And if your date is into meat but you're not, you could be happy with the pizza, salmon, pasta, or eggplant.