The last of the three meanings given for the word "Oenotri" on Oenotri restaurant's business card is "Italian food. Simplified."
The folks at Oenotri in downtown Napa — chefs and partners Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde — are being modest. There's nothing simple about the achievement of perfection, especially when it's revealed in a dish that's hard to perfect, such as their <b>Panna Cotta</b> ($8.50, 4 stars).
Panna cotta is Italian for cooked cream, and it's a light, silky, eggless custard dessert. When it's poorly made, it's like flan or an egg custard. You can flick it with your finger, but it doesn't really react. When it's perfectly made, even a slight shake of the table gives it a sensuous quiver. Flick it with a finger and it will sit there and shimmy in delight.
Oenotri's is perfectly made and flavored with the innards of a real vanilla bean. It has been barely cooked, just enough to combine the cream and gelatin that makes the custard, then refrigerated so it sets and is served cold.
The Italian word for citrus is agrume, so an agrumato is a citrus sauce, in this case a clear, sweet liquid made with Persian lime juice that's spooned over the truncated cone of the panna cotta. First of the season fat blueberries are sprinkled over and around the custard. Simplified indeed!
Not everything at Oenotri is as empyrean as the panna cotta, but the place is pretty amazing. It's located on the ground floor of the new Napa Square complex on First Street, next to the Norman Rose Tavern, and specializes in the cooking of southern Italy, especially the regions of Puglia, Basilicata, Campania, Calabria and Sicily.
The Oenotri were a tribe of Greeks, named after their leader Oenotrus, that settled the coastal regions of southern Italy thousands of years ago, before the rise of Rome. These Greeks brought their vines and their wine-making know-how with them. The indigenous people, called Oscans, termed people who tended vines "oenotri." Eventually the Romans took over the Oscans and the Oenotri, and of course in more recent times, they all became Italians.
Many kinds of foods characterize southern Italy, but two in particular stand out. One is pizza done in Naples' inimitable style, and the other is salumi — preserved pork meats — made so rich, spicy and flavorful that they linger in the memory long after the last slice is savored.
To serve real Napoletano pizza, the owners imported a wood-fueled Acino pizza oven from Naples and bricked it into a wall in their open kitchen. The pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church was called in to bless the oven. And when they first fired it, Di Fede followed Neapolitan tradition and used a flint stone and a steel knife to spark the first fire. They then spent 11 days and nights continually feeding it with cherry, oak, almond and fig wood. It's so authentic that a few months from now, after the oven routine is down pat, they plan to fly in a member of the Association of Vera Pizza Napoletano to certify their pizza as authentically Neapolitan.
Their true Neapolitan pizza dough is made with Tipo 00 flour from grain chosen expressly for the dough by millers in Naples. It has reduced gluten content so it's not elastic, but rather extensible — that is, it stays stretched when pulled out. The result is an ultra thin crust in the center of the dough and a big, puffy rim around the outside, burnt black in spots from the fierce heat of the oven. Tomatoes are San Marzanos, the choicest Italian plum tomatoes. Cheeses include the incomparable mozzarella di bufala, made from the milk of water buffalo. The pizzas are flash-baked in the 800-degree oven for no more than 90 seconds.