Oenotri, the latest development in the rapidly improving range of restaurants in the town of Napa, just opened a few weeks ago. It's already packed so full it’s sometimes hard to get a reservation at primetime. And Napa is not exactly bereft of good places to eat.
Once the poor stepchild in Napa Valley dining, the town of Napa is emerging as an effective counterweight to the famous names up valley in Yountville and St. Helena. Oenotri is in a new building, part of a new development in the center of Napa that includes the Avia hotel across the street and Norman Rose Tavern next door. It has a sleek, modern look. It feels casual but smart.
The restaurant was started by a couple of guys who worked at Oliveto, the Oakland restaurant that still serves some the best Italian food in the Bay Area and spawned Fra’ Mani, which makes some of the best salumi anywhere. At Oenotri they make their own salumi and nearly two dozen different varieties of cured pork of various textures and flavor profiles.
The restaurant serves a short menu that relies on the sort of handcrafted food that makes Italian cuisine special. They installed a wood-fueled brick pizza oven from Naples and offer four or five options, basta. A similar number of antipasti and main courses complete the menu, looking for inspiration to the southern half of Italy. There are also several toppings for polenta and a roasted vegetable option.
I have dropped in twice to check it out, but still have not made it to the main courses. Jim Laube and I shared a platter of salumi one night, each more fragrant than the last, a pizza and some pasta. We love the cold cuts, but the pasta, tossed with seafood, could have used another minute or so in the boiling water.
The pizza was the big disappointment on that visit. The margherita was overbaked, the mozzarella having browned and curdled slightly, and the center of the crust was too much like a cracker. I like thin-crust pizza, but the trick is to keep it soft under the exterior crispness. Earlier this week I went alone to try the pizza again.
A topping of fresh Monterey sardines intrigued me the most, but lots of garlic doesn't agree with me and the other ingredient was a red garlic sauce. I asked if it would be possible to replace that sauce with just the tomato puree from the margherita, and the waiter suggested they just put the sardines on a margherita and charge $2 more for it. It was a great suggestion. Instead of fresh basil, Oenotri has been using an organically-grown dried oregano on the margherita. That flavor and the wood-roasted crust on the sardine make a great match. This time the crust and mozzarella were perfect, a true Neapolitan pizza. If they can get that consistently, Oenotri will be the place to go for pizza in Napa Valley.
The Ciacci Piccolomoni Toscana Rosso 2007, a lovely Sangiovese-based wine from Italy, completed the picture nicely as did the side dish of wood oven-roasted squash. It made the ideal light dinner. Clearly, Oenotri is getting its act together. I will be back, if I can get a reservation.
1425 First St., Napa, CA 94559
Telephone: (707) 252-1022
Chiarello Family Vineyar — Saint Helena CA — May 28, 2010 9:10pm ET
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