Showing posts with label Santa Monica il Fornaio. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Santa Monica il Fornaio. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Putting Romaine Lettuce's Feet to the Fire

Going out to eat has many pleasures, not the least of which is learning a new trick to add to your own repertoire at home.

Last year, we had dinner at the charming Barbrix (242 Hyperion Avenue, Silver Lake 90027, 323/662-2442) where we discovered chermoula sauce. Easy to make, I promptly put it to use in my own kitchen flavoring fish, chicken, and vegetables.

Recently at Il Fornaio, during the Lazio Regionale, we had Lattuga Romana alla Griglia or lightly grilled hearts of romaine topped with shaved pecorino pepato and Il Fornaio's creamy house dressing. The rest of the menu was terrific, but the real stand out was the deceptively simple grilled hearts of romaine.

The dish is easy to make at home. So easy, in fact, you can serve it on the spur of the moment because it takes barely fifteen minutes to prepare.

Grilled Hearts of Romaine

If you can buy your romaine from a farmers' market, all the better to ensure freshness. At the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers' Market we buy ours from Gloria's Fruits and Vegetables. At the Sunday Palisades Market, John of Sweredoski Farms sells large, well-formed lettuces.

Romaine will keep fresh in the refrigerator for a week or more when wrapped in a damp cloth kitchen towel and placed in a plastic bag.

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 15 minutes


2 large romaine lettuces
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 slices pecornio pepato or pecorino Romano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Peal off the 4-5 outer leaves of each romaine and discard. With a sharp paring knife, cut off the end of the stem so it's even with the remaining leaves. Wash the inside of the leaves to remove grit, being careful to leave them attached to the stem. Shake off excess water.

Using a sharp knife, cut each romaine the long way. Then cut each half again so one romaine makes 4 sections that look like long watermelon slices.

Heat a bbq grill or preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

Pour the olive oil on a flat plate and season with sea salt and pepper. Dredge all sides of each romaine section in the seasoned olive oil and place on the grill for 3-4 minutes or put on an aluminum lined roasting pan and place in the oven. Turn over and continue cooking another 3-4 minutes or until the top edges of the cut side of the romaine are browned.

Remove from the oven. Place on a serving plate. Lay a thin slice of pecorino along the length of each piece of romaine. Everyone will need knives and forks. Serve warm.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentine's Day

Since my wife has sworn off sugar, my Valentine's day options are limited. I used to bake her one of her favorite desserts--a chocolate banana walnut cake, bread pudding with chocolate and almonds, apple pie with crystallized ginger crust, or a raspberry custard--but not now.

Last year, the first year of Michelle's new regimen, I didn't know what to do so I ironed all her blouses. She liked that.

This year we decided our Valentine's Day treat would be a meal at our favorite restaurant. Last week we went to a tasting at the Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401; 310/451-7800) opposite the Santa Monica pier. This month's Regionale features the exceptional cuisine of Lazio, which includes Rome.

We enjoyed the meal so much, we're going back for Valentine's Day, the last day of the Regionale.

Romans must love pork, because cured pork was a featured ingredient in a soup, two pastas, and an entree. Guanciale (pork cheek) enhanced the flavors of the Cannellini Bean Soup (Pasta e Fagiolicon le Cotiche) and gave depth to the Spaghetti in SpicyTomato Sauce (Bucatini all'Amatriciana).

Pancetta in the Spinach Cannelloni (Cannelloni alla Crema) contributed a salty heartiness to the chicken and veal stuffing. In the Sauteed Veal (Saltimbocca alla Romana), prosciutto combined perfectly with the sage and wine reduction to compliment the thin slices of veal.

But Romans apparently do not live by meat alone. The vegetarian and seafood dishes were particularly satisfying, especially one dish, the Grilled Hearts of Romaine(Lattuga Romana alla Griglia). Once in a while we encounter a dish that surprises, even though the ingredients are totally familiar. That was definitely the case with the grilled romaine. Served warm and topped with Il Fornaio's creamy house dressing and a thin slice of softened pecorino pepato (whole peppercorns are imbeded in the cheese), the lightly caramelized romaine had more similarities to fennel than it did to the overly familiar lettuce we have in salads.

The Whole Wheat Ravioli (Mezzelune Integrali) was also unexpectedly good. Too many times we've tried to eat healthily and ordered a whole wheat pasta only to be disappointed with textures and flavors that resembled cardboard. Not so the ravioli filled with greens (Swiss chard and Spinach) and cheeses (ricotta and pecorino) and topped with mushrooms and cherry tomatoes.

Even though Michelle wouldn't have dessert, she indulged me and watched as I ate the Kahlua and Coffee Mouse (Crema al Caffe' e Sambuca). The dessert was presented with extra long spoons which struck me as an affectation, at least until I started eating and discovered that buried in the delicious mouse were precious treats. Cubes of sambuca-soaked sponge cake and coffee beans coated in dark chocolate were lying in wait to be discovered by the deep-diving, adventurous spoon-wielding-diner.

With so many wonderful dishes and several we wanted to try like the Roasted Salmon with Asparagus, Artichokes, and Capers (Salmone Ostia Antica) and the Risotto with Prawns and Monkfish (Risotto Antico Impero), we decided the best way to celebrate our love for each other was to come back to Il Fornaio and do it all again.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region Comes to Il Fornaio

Wedged between Austria and Slovena, the northern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia is bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the south and the Alps to the north. Reflecting a climate which can be buffeted by cold fronts, the region's cuisine emphasizes comfort food: hearty soups, polenta, charcuterie, grilled meats and fish, risotto, gnocchi, and ravioli.

To celebrate the New Year, a group of friends gathered at the Santa Monica Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401; 310/451-7800), opposite the Santa Monica Pier, for a tasting of the Festa Regionale (January 4-17) . Along with a selection of regional dishes, we also sampled wines from the family run Tenuta Luisa winery located close to the Slovena border.

When we arrived at the restaurant, a cold chill caught us by surprise, so soup was the order of the day. The Cannellini Bean Soup (Zuppa E Antipasti) was deeply flavored with carrots, potatoes, and Swiss chard, topped with a thin slice of Il Fornaio's bread, crusted with grated Parmesan cheese. The light and fruity but not sweet Friulano (2008) made a good companion for the soup.

While we studied the menu, we feasted on a basket of delicious, fresh-from-the-oven Il Fornaio bread--the restaurant is called "The Baker" after all--with slices dipped into a small plate filled with their own extra virgin olive oil. The struggle, always, is to eat only a few slices of the bread and not the whole basket.

Although off the familiar tourist routes, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is well-known for one of its products, San Daniele prosciutto. Our appetizer was a plate composed as much for the eye as the palate (Prosciutto San Daniele e Formaggi Misti). The sweet, delicate San Daniele could be eaten by itself, each slice practically melting in your mouth.

What's fun about a charcuterie plate is the mix-and-matching that is possible. A piece of prosciutto can be eaten with a bite of a meaty Cerignola olive, or it can be wrapped around a crisp thin bread stick studded with sea salt. My favorite way was to dredge a slice of soft Montasio Vecchio in olive oil I seasoned with sea salt and pepper, quickly wrapping the cheese in the San Daniele, popping the little package in my mouth before too much of olive oil dripped off, followed by a sip of Friulano. Yum.

Reflecting their proximity to the Alps, the pasta courses featured hearty cream sauces. Usually anathema to calorie counters, a special dispensation should be made for these delicious sauces.

When there is a choice between Ravioli with Roast Duck in an Asparagus Cream Sauce (Ravioli d'Anatra Agli Asparagi), Pasta with Shellfish in a Parmesan and Tomato Bechamel (Pasticcio alla Gradese), Gnocchi with Sausage in a Tomato Cream Sauce (Gnocchi alla Friulana), or Risotto with Mushrooms and Vegetables in a Cheese Sauce (Risotto del Cansiglio), you'd want the tasting to focus entirely here and never move on.

But good sense prevailed and we sampled two of the four.

The ravioli hit every comfort note. The sauce, light and creamy, was leavened by the asparagus. The filling of braised duck meat was mixed with San Daniele prosciutto and pillowed softly inside the delicately sweet dough. Needless to say, generous amounts of fresh bread were used to collect every last drop of the sauce.

In the risotto, the sauce had been absorbed into the grains of rice. By comparison with the ravioli, the effect was almost austere but the effect was no less luxurious. The risotto melted in the mouth, with thin slices of wild mushrooms and fresh vegetables providing added flavor to the sweetness of the rice.

With both courses we had the Pinot Grigio (2008), a crisp companion perfect to contrast with the pastas' richness.

For protein, the region looks both to the mountains and the sea. Shrimp and Spaghetti in a Marinara Cream Sauce (Gamberoni alla Busara con Spaghetti), Wild Sea Bass with Mashed Potatoes and Spinach (Filetto di Branzino alla Greca), and a Mixed Grill of Chicken, Sausage, Lamb, and New York Steak (Carne Mista alla Brace).

Choosing the sea bass, I would have happily just eaten the mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach with cherry tomatoes, capers, Kalmata and Cerignola olives. They were that delicious. The sea bass had no trouble competing with such formidable accompaniments. Moist and sweet, the skin turned into a crisp confection that dissolved in my mouth. The Friulano was a bit too fruity for the dish and the Pinot Grigio too crisp, so we switched to the Sauvignon (2008) which had just the right amount of lightness and full flavor.

Outside we could see people leaving the Santa Monica pier, their coats pulled tightly around them, so although we were well-satisfied with the meal, we decided to take another moment and relax in the warm comfort of the restaurant and share the regional dessert.

A small cake topped with ice cream came to the table. The Italian name, Tortino di Mele con Gelato al Rum, was certainly a mouthful. But we were so busy eating the cake, we didn't bother practicing our Italian. To our simple American tastes this was a great version of a Fruit-Nut Cake. And the rum raisin ice cream was as good as it gets.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Il Fornaio Serves Up a Recession Busting Tasting Menu

Il Fornaio started a tasting menu several months ago, encouraging customers to visit and sample the regional menus that are offered two weeks at the start of each month. For $29.99, choices can be made from the soup and antipasti, pasta, and main course menus.

We visited our favorite branch of Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401; 310/451-7800) across from the Santa Monica pier to have this month's selection from the Piemonte region, bordered by France, Lombardia, and Switzerland. Befitting an area with a colder climate, the dishes are comforting and savory, perfect for fighting off the mountain chill.

We happily started with the Potato and Leek Soup (Zuppa di Patate Porcini e Porri), served hot with a toasted disk of Il Fornaio's country white bread topped with a thick coating of melted fontina cheese. Finely chopped sauteed porcini mushrooms supplied the sweetness, complimenting the salty broth. A glass of Gavi, Patasiolo (2008) was the perfect companion.

For our pasta, we ordered the Cheese Ravioli with Porcini Sauce (Agnolotti di Fonduta ai Porcini). With the first bite, the porcinis dominated, suggesting that this was one of those dishes where the pasta was merely a delivery system for a richly flavored sauce. But the agnolotti were an amiable partner in this marriage of equals. With just a hint of white truffle oil--which is all too often applied with a heavy hand, the better to trumpet a restaurant's grand largess--the mild ravioli stuffed with fontina acquired a light but determined accent of roasted nuts.

For the main course, we had our choice of a Breaded Chicken Breast with ham and fontina cheese (Suprema di Pollo Ripiena), Roast Pork Loin with Figs and Sage (Maiale alla Piemontese), or Wild Seabass with Sauteed Vegetables and Mashed Potatoes (Filetto di Branzino all'Uva).

We were in the mood for a lighter dish, so we chose the seabass with the accompanying sauteed whole stems of broccoli-rabe, mashed potatoes, baby carrots and yellow squash. Halved green grapes and musky thyme complimented the sweet, moist fish, served in a delicate Champagne vinegar sauce.

To finish the meal, we treated ourselves to the regional dessert, an Amaretto-Coffee Custard (Bonet Classico), served with a caramel-coffee-creme anglaise sauce, the perfect ending to a delicious meal.

The Piemonte Regionale is served from November 2-15. If you're going to the American Film Market or Cirque du Soleil across the street or if you're just out on the town looking for an delicious, affordable meal, it's easy enough to stop by Il Fornaio in Santa Monica.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica

Everyone should have at least one restaurant where they feel at home. A place where they know the staff, enjoy the menu, and feel comfortable enough to hang out without feeling pressured to order-eat-and-leave.

For us, that's how we feel about the Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401; 310/451-7800) across from the Santa Monica pier. Several times a month we meet with friends, try out as many dishes as we can, have a cocktail or two, drink a little wine, and share a dessert.

For two weeks at the start of each month, Il Fornaio has a Festa Regionale that features a different region of Italy.

During the Regionale, Il Fornaio offers a tasting menu with a sampling from the soup and antipasti menu, one from the pasta course, and a full sized portion from the meat and fish menu. The servings are large enough to be shared by two and the price is just under $30.00.

The gift this month--if you ask for a Festa Regionale passport and have it stamped, you'll receive a special gift--was a package of mushroom risotto. A very nice take-away.

This month's regional menu (September 7-20) features the region of Abruzzo. Located on the Adriatic Sea, in the mid-section of the Italian peninsula, the cuisine includes the vibrant dishes of the south with beautifully ripe tomatoes (La Pummadore A'nsalata) as well as the hearty braised meats (Maccheroni Alla Chitarra & Risotto con Ragu Di Pesce) of the north.

Between the six of us, we sampled most of the menu along with the two regional wines. We had glasses of the lovely Trebbiano d'Abruzzo (Valle Reale, Vigne Nuove, 2008) which went perfectly with the Lobster bisque (Zuppa d'Argaosta al Tartufo Nero). The bisque had the strong flavors of the sea since no cream or potato puree was added. The Trebbiano was also a good companion for the wild arugula salad (Prosciutto Cacio E Pere) topped with a delicate prosciutto, peppered pecorino cheese, and the thinnest sliced pears I've ever seen.

With the lamb chops (Costicine d'Agnello) , perfectly cooked and spread out on the plate like an elegant fan, we had the very nice Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (Cataldi Madonna, 2006).

Our favorite pasta from the menu was the pasta with lamb ragu (Maccheroni alla Chitarra). The braised flavors were deep and rich. The strands of meat were perfectly tender with just the right amount of salt.

Saving the best for last, the icy-cold custard (Semifreddo al Torrone con Punch Abruzzzese) with almond nougat was delicious. To eat the dessert we were given extra long spoons so we could reach across the table and share the plate.

In the competition to eat as much of the semifreddo as possible, the spoons became weapons-of-mass-consumption.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia

The first Tuesday of every month, my wife and I have dinner with a group of friends. We go to the Santa Monica Il Fornaio (1551 Ocean Avenue across from the Pier, Santa Monica 90401; 310/451-7800) for a tasting of the current Festa Regionale.

The dinner is on the early side, so it is a bit of a rush to get there from work, but the idea is to meet, talk, eat, sample the wines, and still get home early enough to deal with kids and other obligations.

The region celebrated this month is Lombardia. The dishes have substance, the better to fight off the cold in this northern region of Italy, so there are entrees of osso buco (Ossobuco alla Milanese) and beef tenderloin with mascarpone and gorgonzola (Filetto di Bue alla Lombarda), which is something of a gilded lily but the side of grilled polenta and sauteed spinach help ground the rich dish.

A Franciacorta Brut, Tenuta di Montenisa, a light fruity sparkling wine, the Malvasia '"Tasto di Seta," Castello di Luzzzano, 2007 with a pleasant mineral flavor, and the Bonarda Oltrepo Pavese, Carlino, Castello di Luzzano, 2007, with a full-bodied quality that would please any Bordeaux-loving oenophile were the regional wines selected for the month.

By group consensus the Lombardia menu was pronounced Best of the Best. The butternut squash and potato soup (Zuppa di Zucca), tomato and mache salad with polenta croutons (Pomidoro alla Padana), polenta squares with six different toppings (Crostini di Polenta), sauteed salmon fillet with red grapes and shallots in a reduction of the Franciacorta (Salmoncino Franciacorta) were all excellent.

Our favorite dish was a very simply prepared pasta with a mix of porcini, crimini, and shiitake mushrooms (Pappardelle Gialle ai Funghi). The savory mushrooms were supported perfectly by the soft, wide strands of freshly made pappardelle. We liked them so much, the whole group is going back again on Sunday.

The end of the meal was another high-point. The Semifreddo all'Amaretto combined custard and creme anglaise with a soul-comforting whipped cream-creaminess.

All articles about restaurants are duty-bound to include photographs, the better to help readers appreciate the food.

My wife is out of town and we missed her at the tasting, so these photographs are as much for her as they are to document a great meal at Il Fornaio in Santa Monica.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale

From May 4-17, Il Fornaio celebrates the food of Campania. One of the better known regions of Italy--home to Naples, Sorrento, Salerno, the island of Capri, and the Amalfi Coast--Campania enjoys a warm climate and a long growing season. Mario Lombardo designed the regional menu, pulling favorites from his mother's kitchen and the dishes his father prepared as a chef in Campagnia at O'Parrucchiano-La Favorita.

At Il Fornaio's Santa Monica restaurant (1551 Ocean Avenue across from the Santa Monica Pier; 310/451-7800), we enjoyed another tasting as we continue our exploration of Italy through its regional cuisines.

As befits a coastal region, the Campania menu features seafood. There were mussels with breadcrumbs (Tegamino e Cozze), linguine with clams (Linguine cu e Vongole), risotto with shrimp, mussels, and clams (Risotto e Amalfi), and seabass baked in parchment paper with shrimp, mussels, and clams (Spigula Dinto o Cuoppo).

Our starter was the cannelini bean soup (Menesta Schitana). The beans thickened and sweetened the broth, which was complimented by barely cooked fresh tomatoes and crisp pieces of pancetta. With the soup we were served the Fiano di Avellino, D'Antiche Terre (2007) a dry white with strong fruit notes. At first it seemed counter-intuitive to have wine with soup (who does that?), but they worked well with one another.

The second appetizer was a beautifully plated selection of heirloom tomatoes (Pummarole e Capri) with first-of-the-season Pineapple and Brandywine tomatoes, topped with soft cubes of mozzarella di bufala. With the Pummarole, we had the Greco di Tufo, D'Antiche Terre (2007), a white wine with a touch of sweetness to leven the acid of the tomatoes.

For our pasta course, we had crepes filled with ground beef (Cannelloni e Pascale), mixed with a trifecta of cheeses--ricotta, mozzarella, paremesan--and seasoned with fresh basil. Resting on top was a coating of tomato sauce and melted fresh mozzarella. When my Jewish mother cooked comfort food, dumplings were usually involved, which always made me very happy. I have to imagine that cannelloni have a similar effect on the children of Campania.

The menu offered a meat course of veal (Scaluppine a Caprese), a mixed grill of lamb, game hen, and sausage (Carne Mista 'Ncoppa a Griclia), or seabass in parchment paper (Spigula Dinto o Cuoppo). We decided to try the Scaluppine.

Thin slices of veal were sauced with lightly cooked chopped tomatoes and melted fresh mozzarella, accompanied by fresh English peas sauteed with pancetta and roasted baby Yukon Gold potatoes. A richly flavored Aglianico, Terredora (2007) was served with the veal. One of our friends described the aroma as "almost like you're drinking it inside a wine cask." Deliciously musky, the Aglianico was perfectly paired with the veal.

Well-known as a citrus growing region, for our Campanian dessert we had half-glasses of chilled limoncello and a serving of light-as-air lemon sponge cake with lemon pastry cream inside (Delizia a Limone). All too often lemon's tartness is counterbalanced with a heavy addition of sugar. Not so with the limoncello and sponge cake. Sweetness softened lemon's edge but didn't overwhelm its flavor.

One of these days we'll take a long postponed trip to Italy, but until then we look forward to Il Fornaio's monthly Festa Regionale.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio

One of the things I like about Il Fornaio's monthly, regional menus is the chance to take an armchair journey to Italy. This month's region is Calabria.

Located on the toe of the Italian boot and extending into the Mediterranean, Calabria has developed dishes that feature seafood.

With a group of friends, we went to our neighborhood Il Fornaio in Santa Monica (1551 Ocean Avenue across from the Santa Monica Pier; 310/451-7800) and shared the dishes family style.

While we read through the menu, we ate baskets of Il Fornaio bread dipped in seasoned olive oil. The fresh bread is so delicious there's always the risk that we'll be full before we even begin the meal.

We started with bowls of the delicious three bean soup (Zuppa Millecuselle) which paired cannellini, borlotti, and garbanzo beans in a vegetarian broth, flavored with lentils, mushrooms, and cabbage and thickened with tomatoes. Adding the lentils was an especially nice touch because they grounded all the contrasting flavors.

We followed the soup with an inventive salad of organic greens (Insalata Monte Poro) with fried goat cheese balls, dressed with fresh strawberries and a strawberry-raspberry red wine vinaigrette. With these two dishes we had a Greco Bianco by Alberto and Antonio Statti (2007), a crisp, light white that complimented the soup and salad.

For our pasta course, we shared plates of spaghetti with shell fish (Spaghettata du Pescatori Calabrisi). Fresh black mussels, butter clams, calamari rings, and shrimp were tossed in a spicy tomato sauce with saltiness provided by capers and slices of giant green olives. We were still drinking the Greco but decided we should try the other wine from the region, a Gaglioppo also from the Satti brothers (2007).

For the main course we had a choice of chicken with mushrooms (Petto di Pollo alla Cacciatora), roasted boneless leg of lamb (Agnello Arrustutu), or a swordfish loin (Involtino di Spada). We decided on the swordfish because the menu said it was a favorite of the region.

Chef Bruno Amato, the Il Fornaio Chef-Partner, who designed the menu, prepared the fish in a manner I've never seen before. Instead of grilling the swordfish, he stuffed it with a mixture of shrimp, almonds, garlic, pecorino, and caciocavallo cheese. Topped with bread crumbs and drizzled with olive oil, the fish was a masterful combination of textures: crunchy, soft, and moist. Accompanying the fish were roasted potatoes, eggplant, and red and yellow peppers in a tomato sauce with a touch of heat. We had more of the Gaglioppo. It benefited from spending time in the glass. Its flavors had softened so it paired perfectly with the swordfish.

For dessert we had the ricotta pudding (Budino di Ricotta) which reminded me of ricotta cheese cakes I used to eat in Providence, Rhode Island. Not too sweet, a little on the dry side, and delightfully flavored with golden raisins, orange, and lemon zest

The regional menu is served until March 15th, so we have time to go back and try the ravioli stuffed with salami and ricotta (Ravioli ca 'Sopressata) and have another bowl of the delicious soup.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio

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