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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Il Fornaio Santa Monica Closed

It is strange the assumptions one makes. Some places seem fixed in your life like anchors. Long-lived businesses become friends-of-the-family and, as such, seem guaranteed to be experienced whenever one wants. And then, just like that, they are gone.
 For seventeen years we had a dining out routine.

During the first two weeks of every month, we would go to Il Forniao across from the Santa Monica Pier for the Festa Regionale. We would enjoy dishes and wines that celebrated specific culinary regions of Italy: Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige, Piemonte, Umbria, Sicilia, Toscana, Campania, Lombardia, Lazio, Abruzzo and Marche.
Antipasti, salads, soups, pastas, risottos, grilled and baked meats and fish, and braises would come to the table flavored by the unique preferences of the region's traditions.
Designed to fight off the cold, Northern Italian dishes had a "rib-sticking" quality, featuring luscious, thick sauces and soups topped with croutons and cheese. From the south, the dishes were lighter and featured the seafood found in local waters.
Coming to the monthly Regionale also meant participating in the Pasporto program. When we visited, we were given a gift: a small bottle of balsamic vinegar, flavored olive oil, dried pasta, beans or pizza dough to cook at home, a calendar, an apron and, best of all, a hand-painted dinner plate.
Full disclosure: I have collected 74 Il Fornaio dinner plates, which officially qualifies as obsessive compulsive behavior.
Also, every June and December, drawings were held. The grand prize winners were sent on an all-expense paid trip to Italy. The runners-up took home bottles of premium wine, Il Fornaio olive oil or balsamic vinegar and gift certificates.

Besides good food and gifts given to visitors to any Il Fornaio during the Regionale, the Santa Monica restaurant was a friendly place to visit all the time. The waitstaff was welcoming, Luis, the executive chef, and managers like Fernanda and Chamal became friends and always stopped by the table to see if we needed anything.

Even though the interior was large, with two levels for dining, an open kitchen area and a long bar, the restaurant was warm and cozy, dominated by the colorful accents of a Venetian mural and dark wood.
If there was time after dinner, a walk onto the Santa Monica Pier or along the Santa Monica Promenade with a view of the beach and Pacific Coast Highway below was a good way to talk and walk off the meal.
For posts about Il Fornaio, please go to: Putting Romaine's Feet to the Fire, Valentine's Day, The Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region Comes to Il Fornaio, Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica, Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia, Il Fornaio Serves Up a Recession Busting Tasting Menu, Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania, A Trip to Italy,   A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Couscous, and Plate Envy
On the regular menu, we had our favorites. The Il Fornaio salad with creamy dressing, topped with sheets of quality Parmesan cheese, the paper thin pizzas, the branzino with mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach and roasted vegetables and the gelato ice cream.
As with most stories that have an unhappy ending, there is a villain.
Over the years, Il Fornaio opened many restaurants. Santa Monica was an early addition. Across from the Santa Monica Pier, the location had the advantage of attracting tourists. But that also made the restaurant vulnerable to seasonal and economic fluctuations.
The building landlord seemed indifferent to the vagaries of reality and every year increased the rents not just on Il Fornaio but the other tenants. The spaces opposite and behind Il Fornaio had been home to many restaurants which opened and failed with alarming frequency. No restaurant lasted very long. Il Fornaio held the course for seventeen years.
Finally, this year, the landlord insisted on increases that were not sustainable. When management was notified of the latest demand, a decision had to be made quickly. Just after Thanksgiving, the restaurant closed, the staff given their choice to work at the other area Il Fornaio restaurants.

We only learned of the closing when a friend emailed saying she was meeting friends and needed a place to eat in Santa Monica. Since Il Fornaio was permanently closed, she said, where else would I suggest?
Happily Il Fornaio survives elsewhere in the area. For the holidays we are staying in Carlsbad, south of Los Angeles, and we will visit the Il Fornaio in Del Mar. The web site lists all the branches so if we want to enjoy affordable, well-prepared, authentic Italian food, we know where to go.

There is talk Il Fornaio will find a new, more affordable space in Santa Monica. That would be great.

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