This season we’re going back to our roots in California’s wine country, where the first Williams-Sonoma store was opened. Along the way we’ll be spotlighting the local chefs, artisans and producers who have made the region a top culinary destination and continue to inspire us, in the kitchen and around the table.
At their restaurant Oenotri in downtown Napa, chefs Tyler Rodde and Curtis Di Fede bring Italian cuisine to the wine country, serving handcrafted salumis, fresh extruded pastas and other dishes featuring ingredients from their own culinary garden. Here, we ask them all about Italian cuisine in wine country, pasta tips, and how to entertain the wine country way.
Tell us about your backgrounds and how you started Oenotri.
Tyler: Curtis and I met when we were working at Oliveto. Then I was at Riva Cucina restaurant, and it was through that that I met my fiance, Lauren. We were watching this other couple build a restaurant, and we saw what they were doing well and where we had a different position. Then Lauren and Curtis and I sat down and said, “We can do this — let’s open a restaurant.” We put our minds to it, signed a lease, and that was that.
When we first opened in March 2010, we though we’d be farm-to-table, sourcing everything from farmers. Then we got the opportunity to use land in Napa to grown and use our own produce. We started out with 900 square feet, added more spaces over the next couple of years, and one day we looked down and we had almost a three-acre farm.
A lot of chefs know how much food you need in order to supply your restaurant. Very few grasp how much physical space it takes to grow that produce and how to maintain a garden year-round with productivity. That’s fun.
What inspires you about living and working in the Napa area?
Tyler: I go back to the farm. There are something like 13 different types of soil in the world that vegetables grow in, and in Napa there are 11 of them because of the different microclimates, from Carneros to Mount St. Helena. To be able to have so many different things growing all year round, as a chef and as someone who enjoys being outdoors, it’s phenomenal.
Couple that with a community fueled by the wine industry — winemakers always thinking of new ideas and inspiring you, and chefs doing the same. There’s a fun partnership between food and wine that you don’t see in a lot of other communities. It is absolutely a farm town – it just happens to be grape. There’s a connection between farmers, winemakers, chefs and ranchers.
How would you describe wine country cuisine? What’s unique about it?
Tyler: There is no pretense. In Napa, more than other places, there is a willingness to allow the product to stand on its own with very little manipulation. In other parts of the country and the world, there’s often not the faith in the product and the casualness of the environment to promote that kind of cuisine.
Recently I had a guest in the restaurant who told me about one of her first experiences there. She ordered a dessert — a “peach something” — which came out as a sliced up peach on a plate. She was blown away! But the peach was phenomenal and elicited all of these childhood memories of her grandmother’s peach tree. There are very few places in the country where people will put a piece of fruit on a plate because they know how good and special it is.
Why is Italian food so popular in wine country?
Curtis: Italian and classic French cuisine go best with wine. People coming to wine country want to taste wine and eat, and the simplicity and flavor profiles of Italian cooking are ideal for that.
What are some other ingredients and dishes that are staples of wine country dining?
Tyler: We use a lot of green onions, green garlic, arugula, little gems — it’s utilizing a lot of younger plants and their flowers. Charcuterie is definitely a big part of it. You’re dealing with similar processes in the fermentation of alcohol and making salumi. We’ve taught some of our winemaker friends how to make prosciutto; it’s absolutely a perfect marriage. The wine industry is willing to wait, willing to invest and stand by a product and believe it’s going to turn out well. A lot of industries don’t have that. It’s true in both the food and wine industries; salumi and cheese are heavy investments of time.
What makes your food specific to Napa instead of Italy?
Curtis: It’s hard to characterize because Napa is so similar in climate to parts of Italy. We are growing similar ingredients, but the terroir is a little different. For example, you might not see the same seafood in the Mediterranean because the waters are warmer.
Describe your technique for making your fresh pasta.
Curtis: When we first opened, we wanted to be different and stand alone, so we focused more on southern-style cooking. That’s why we went with extruded pastas versus sheeted. Our extruder has 11 ties, and each makes a different shape. The dough is just semolina flour and water – there’s no egg. See more pasta tips from the Oenotri chefs here.
Are there any general guidelines for pairing pasta shapes and sauces?
Curtis: For tomatoes and jammy sauces, you want a pasta that has nooks and crannies. If the sauce is looser and you really want to taste the pasta, choose a lighter pasta. For ragus and braises, we use shorter pastas, and we use longer noodles for saucier dishes.
Do you cook and entertain at home? What are some of your go-to dishes?
Tyler: Yes. I built a wood-burning brick grill in my backyard and I love to butterfly and de-bone squab and cook it over indirect heat on the grill, with a little farro and roasted peaches.
Any classic wine pairings you’d recommend with Italian food?
Tyler: Lambrusco and salumi. A bottle of Lambrusco is the greatest accompaniment there is — it has all the body of red wine and all the light, floral notes of sparkling.
How can people pull off a wine country dining style at home?
Tyler: Keep it simple. Napa is all about keeping it simple. Think about a handful of things you know how to do well, and don’t try to do too much.