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Napa, California: Wine Country Gets Strikingly Good Neapolitan Pies at Oenotri

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[Photographs: David Kover]


Oenotri

1425 First Street, Napa, CA 94559; (map); 707-252-1022; oenotri.com
Pizza style: Neapolitan-inspired
Oven type: Wood-fired
The skinny: Immensely flavorful crust with toppings devised by two young chefs with rising star talent
Price: Pies, $13.50 to $16

It's pretty clear that pizza is having a moment; not just in restaurants we'd call pizzerias, but also on the menus of places that serve more traditionally cheffy fare. In the Bay Area, restaurants like Cotogna, Flour + Water, and Zero Zero have all earned gushing compliments for their more conventional composed dishes above and beyond their pizza pies. Oenotri, Napa's newest it restaurant, fits this mold, with the San Francisco Chronicle naming chefs Tyler Rodde and Curtis Di Fede among their Rising Star Chefs for 2011.

Their concern with turning out a broader menu should not imply that Rodde and Di Fede relegate pizza to an afterthought. Just consider their oven. They put up with a nine-month wait so they could import a wood-fired Acino oven, built by a father-son team in Naples, and then had it blessed by a priest as they lit it for the first time. A picture of Di Fede's Sicilian great-uncle, the man who inspired Di Fede to cook, hangs over the mouth of this bricked beauty. A combination of oak, fig, and manzanita wood keeps the oven burning between between 850 and 900 degrees on the floor, with a cook time of approximately seventy seconds for each pie.

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With this brief cook time and an adherence to VPN standards in mixing the dough, Oenotri produces a crust that lovers of Neapolitan-style pie will find swoon-worthy. Though it boasts a notably crisp exterior, it is the soft-chewy interior of the cornicione that stands out. Were I to summon my crankiest self, I might have asked for a few more char spots on one of my pies, but aided by a healthy sprinkling of salt, there is immense flavor here.

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On Oenotri's Margherita, I found each of the individual ingredients beyond reproach. The sauce of raw San Marzanos had a balanced but powerful tomato flavor. The imported mozzarella di bufala boasted a truly creamy texture backdropped by a whisper of tanginess. Yet these wonderful ingredients had been applied with a touch too much restraint. The pie felt dry in spots, even sticking to the roof of my mouth on one bite. If I had to guess, I would peg this as a momentary aberration, but this particular pie did not come together quite as perfectly as the parts would have implied.

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Besides the Margherita, Oenotri typically offers a rotating menu of three topped pizzas. On the Sausage with Mushrooms Agrodolce pizza that I ordered, Rodde and Di Fede's Rising Star Chef credentials truly came through. This pie had been built up from a base layer of mozzarella and some cream, then topped with a bit of red onion, king trumpet and Maitake mushrooms that had been tossed in balsamic and sherry, sausage, and finally a scattering of dandelion greens. The earthy-nutty flavors of the 'shrooms absolutely stole the show, with everything accented by the bitter, almost lemony flavor of the greens. The combination served as a clinic on how pizza can represent a fully composed dish.

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Sure, if you read the professional reviewers, it sounds like the entrée and pasta sections of Oenotri's menu also hold some gems, but I'm very happy sticking with the pizza. I'm eager to sample a few more of their topped pies, and I expect that if the next Margherita I order gets just the barest touch more cheese and sauce, that will be pretty great as well.

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