Every day, at exactly 4:15 p.m., chefs Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde of Napa’s Oenotri restaurant begin a ritual they call, somewhat prosaically, “tasters.” Their line cooks prepare every dish on the southern-Italian-inspired menu, all at once, and Di Fede and Rodde grab their forks. They don’t take little bites, either. They devour everything: wild-nettle pizza with green-garlic cream; the Sicilian chickpea fritters known as panelle; pappardelle with pigeon liver, walnuts and vin santo. When the cook passes them a plate of crispy fried haddock with onion fonduta, it’s clear from the look on their faces that they got into the restaurant business because they really love to eat.
These daily tasting sessions aren’t just about making sure the line cooks correctly prepare the chefs’ signature dishes. These guys don’t even have signature dishes. Instead, the “tasters” give Di Fede and Rodde a chance to ensure that every dish is as delicious as they want it to be. They have a clear sense of how they want their food to taste and a deep understanding of their ingredients—their olive oil and produce, the meat they cure themselves. They know the right moment to kill a pigeon to get the sweetest, most tender liver. Yet, despite their respect for tradition, the chefs still reinvent their menu almost every day, as dictated by whatever is freshest from their two farms and by what looks best in the meat locker. All of this explains why Oenotri is unquestionably the most exciting new restaurant in Napa Valley, and arguably the best new Italian restaurant in the United States.
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Di Fede and Rodde are far from the first California chefs to revere the Italian way of cooking. For a long time, the dominant strain in California cuisine was Provençal, thanks to Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. Waters’s protégé, Paul Bertolli, pioneered California-Italian cuisine with Oakland’s Oliveto in 1993. In the way of Old World artisans, Bertolli built flavor “from the bottom up”—hand-grinding corn for polenta, killing wild boar for house-made salumi. He inspired Rodde and Di Fede, who met six years ago in the Oliveto kitchen after stints at other restaurants (Di Fede at The French Laundry and Bouchon; Rodde in a corporate job at The Cheesecake Factory). Bertolli’s 2003 book, Cooking by Hand, now holds pride of place on the Oenotri office bookshelf, informing every batch of sugo that the chefs make.