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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.

On a recent night, four pizzas were listed on the menu. The <b>House-Smoked Mozzerella</b> (how strange to see the name of this cheese misspelled on the menu when they take such care to be so authentic) <b>di Bufala Pizza</b> ($15.50, 4 stars) is topped with minced salumi and young torpedo onion and is nothing short of exquisite.

But enough about the pizza. How about the salumi? Salumi is cured pork meats of several types, including dry-cured salame. There's a whole menu of salumi at Oenotri and it's all made by hand in-house. The menu includes a dozen dry cured meats and four cooked and formed salumi. I chose four dry cured and two cooked and formed <b>Salumi</b> ($15, 4 stars). The dry-cured sliced pork sausages included Nostrano made with mace, clove and garlic; Sardegna made with saffron, ginger and grappa; Lonza, similar to pancetta and made with black pepper, and Sanguanaccio made with pork blood, anise and garlic. Each was as good a slice of Italian-style dry cured pork meat as I've ever had. The cooked and formed salumi-pork rillettes and a country-style liver pat?were very good but not up to the level of the dry cured stuff. A basket of house-made crackers accompanied the salumi.

If this restaurant has a drawback, it's that it fills up fast from the time the doors open at 5:30. The noise level from the sound system's fondness for metal hair bands and the excited chatter of the diners veers upwards, close to unbearable.

Service is impeccable, even with a house full of patrons. If you must wait to be seated, there's a full bar where you may.

The wine list is split between California and Italian wines — and there are some great, rare and very expensive bottles along with moderately priced ones. For instance, a 1997 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco is $325, a 1993 Aldo Conterno Barolo is $250, and if you're looking for a big-time palate education, splurge for a 1998 Tomasso Bussola TB Amarone at $175. There's a whole page of Italian sparklers, too. Corkage is $10 for the first bottle and $25 for each bottle thereafter.

Besides the pizzas and salumi, much else is available. <b>Arugula Salad</b> ($13, 2? stars) was seeded with oven-roasted peaches and pistachios but was far too oily. But the <b>Beet Salad</b> ($12, 3 stars) with avocado, almonds and mache was just right.

Among the pasta dishes were <b>Pennette </b>($14.50, 3 stars), tiny tomato-flavored penne pasta cooked to resemble risotto and swirled around with a crookneck squash puree. Very elegant. <b>Bucatini all'Amatriciana </b>($14.50, 4 stars) was a perfect pasta — long tubes of bucatini — given a spicy tomatoey meat sauce, although traditionists in the town of Amatrice often make it the ancient way, with a white sauce and guanciale, as it was made before the discovery of the New World and tomatoes.

The pleasurable part of the <b>Lamb Shoulder Braised in Marsala</b> ($25, 2? stars) with house-cured olives and white Spanish beans was the tender, flavorful chunks of braised lamb. The unpleasurable part was the bitter, chewy dandelion greens that accompanied the meat.

Another plus: everything emerged from the kitchen on time and piping hot. Not bad in a restaurant so busy you can hardly hear yourself think.

To sum up: Oenotri is destined to become a Napa institution for the exquisite quality of its food and the dedication of its staff.

<i>Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.</i>

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