8 years ago
|Dale F. Bentson , a Professional Reviewer, wrote:||
By Dale F. Bentson, Palo Alto Weekly (Aug 29, 2008)
"We can't stand it if it isn't authentic," Steve Boyden says. He should know. Managing partner at Il Fornaio, he's been there for nearly 25 years and contributed to the dynamic growth of the company that was born as a baking school in Barlassina (Lombardia), Italy, in 1972.
Since then, the company has changed ownership several times, and gone public and then private. It is currently operated by a limited liability corporation. With 21 full-service restaurants and additional acquisitions, the corporation is approaching $300 million in annual revenue.
Companies of that size generally follow strict guidelines with regards to manpower and portion control, and make long-term contracts with middle-of-the-road vendors who deliver on price rather than quality. Not so at Il Fornaio. Each restaurant is tended by managers and chefs who are partners in the company.
Dining at Il Fornaio in Palo Alto is not an intimate dining experience with subdued lighting, Leaning Tower of Pisa wallpaper and Pavarotti crooning in the background. Instead, it's stylish and friendly, with a continuously changing menu that infuses gusto into the dining experience.
Because of the restaurant's physical size and airiness, the only element lacking in the presentation is the delight in smelling plates of tantalizing food as they pass the table or emanate from a cozy kitchen.
There are several dining areas, an outside patio adjacent to Cowper Street, and a large awning-covered piazza with a fountain, tile floor and comfortable rattan chairs. The inviting kitchen is open where a wood-fired oven is continuously stoked. The retail-bakery area is piled with delicious-looking breads and pastries.
Two weeks each month, Il Fornaio celebrates the cuisine of a different region of Italy, with a supplemental menu of both food and wine, all developed in-house with collaboration among corporate chef Maurizio Mazzon and the various Il Fornaio restaurant chefs, many of whom hail from different parts of Italy. Festa Regionale is a grand opportunity to sample the prodigious diversity of Italian cuisine.
On a recent visit, the bread basket was exceptional with a variety of fresh-from-the-oven breads, focaccia and bread sticks. The danger lies in stuffing oneself before main plates arrive.
The antipasti were wide-ranging and portions large. Tortino di baccala ($10.50) was a savory pie (tortino) of salt cod, cherry tomatoes, leeks, thyme, capers, peppers and olives layered between sliced potatoes, served over a warm, thick tomato sauce (coulis). It was a tapestry of color and contrasting flavors, salty and expressive.
I also liked the tartara di tonno ($12.50), spicy ahi tuna tartar with sliced tomatoes, English cucumber, micro arugula, mustard-lemon vinaigrette and olive-bread croutons. The sushi-quality fish was delicate and sweet.
There was no lack of pasta and pizza choices. Mezzelune cacio e pere ($16.95) were half-moon ravioli stuffed with grilled pears, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses and topped with asparagus-crescenza (a rich, creamy cheese) sauce, sprinkled with toasted walnuts. While it was an extremely rich plate, there wasn't much flavor beyond the layers of dairy.
The pappardelle ($17.50) were made from chestnut flour. Tossed with Italian sausage, porcini mushrooms, tomatoes, crushed red pepper and Trebbiano (white) wine, the enticing pasta endowed a sweet nuttiness that enhanced the earthier mushrooms and sausage.
Pizza Rustica ($11.95) was a large individual-sized pizza of goat cheese and mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes and olives. The cheeses were a melted puddle of lusciousness, the color intense and vibrant, and the crust wafer thin and crunchy.
Main courses were pleasing. Passera di mare ($25.95) was grilled whole petrale, boned tableside, with capers and white-wine lemon sauce. The plate was anchored with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and Tuscan vegetable salad. The sole was subtle and buttery, fresh tasting without a trace of brininess.
The veal scaloppini ($19.95) was sauteed with artichokes and lemon, served with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and sauteed vegetables. The meat was fork-tender and the artichokes infused some needed jazziness to this popular, but otherwise bland, dish.
I liked the maiale in crosta ($20.95), a thinly pounded, pecorino-crusted pork chop sauteed in olive oil and lemon. The large breaded chop was crisp and lean, tender and juicy, a sumptuous chop perfectly prepared.
Desserts lacked creativity but did not disappoint. Crespelle ($7.50) were crepes filled with apples and grappa-infused pastry cream, vanilla gelato and caramel sauce. The apples were over-macerated and the crepes lost their identity on the plate. The crepes tasted good but might well have been johnnycakes, or pancakes, or just a soggy pastry.
Crema al doppio ($6.95) was fennel-infused custard with chocolate mousse and caramelized sugar topping. Very sweet; a creme brulee derivative; more calories than fulfillment.
The tiramisu ($6.95) of ladyfingers, rum, mascarpone cheese, espresso and cocoa powder was no revelation. It tasted fine, but remained undistinguished.
Affogato al caffe ($5.95) was espresso poured over two scoops of vanilla gelato, topped with whipped cream. It had lots of calories, but was loads of fun, like an old-fashioned, updated malted. I sipped until I made rude noises with my straw.
Pacing from the kitchen did not allow much relaxation. One course was cleared away as plate-laden waiters arrived with the next. A three-course dinner with wine, and one could be out the door in an hour, whether one wanted to or not. This is fine for lunch hour, but not so marvelous in the evening.
The wine list was well conceived. Il Fornaio has merited an excellence award by the glossy Wine Spectator magazine. The selection focuses on Italy and California, with fair prices and above-average selections. Many wines are available by the glass. It's a great venue to sample wines from producers all over Italy.
Il Fornaio is a delicious spot to experience Italy without the pain of today's travel. While it is larger than most restaurant/bakeries in Italy, the food is authentic and the effort is noble. Service was always good and I never wanted for anything other than a few more minutes between courses. Il Fornaio is an ambitious effort that has rewarded us all.
IL Fornaio Cucina Italiana
520 Cowper St
Palo Alto, California 94301
650-853-3888 | phone
650-853-3766 | fax
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