My husband and I have been fans of Il Fornaio since the late '80s, when we used to drive into Los Angeles just to get a good Italian meal.
Orange County has changed a lot since then, but we were very pleased when Il Fornaio opened its doors locally. We ate there often, but as the culinary scene expanded exponentially in the O.C., we didn't get back for many years. So the other night, we were delighted to discover that Il Fornaio is as good as we remembered.
Since our last visit, the restaurant in Irvine has added a big patio in front with two bocce ball courts beside it. The interior has the feel of a modern Italian restaurant with an enormous open kitchen in the back featuring two huge wood-burning beehive ovens and lots of white tiles.
What makes Il Fornaio special is its commitment to fresh Italian food. The chefs bake their own breads daily and make their pastas in-house, except for the dried pastas, which are imported from Italy. Gluten-free pastas are available as well. For two weeks each month, a second menu offering the cuisine from one of Italy's 20 food regions is available.
As we munched on the delicious bread, still warm from the oven, my favorite dinner guest and I decided to share the antipasto plate, with its very good thinly sliced prosciutto, equally good garlicky salami, wonderful caponata and crunchy vegetables including sweet onions, squash, carrots, spinach, zucchini and raisins, all in a well-balanced, sweet dressing. It may have been the best I've ever tasted.
The tomato bruschetta was on soft, thick bread and lacked the crunchy texture that sets off the soft tomato slices. Also, this is not tomato season, and the thick slice lacked flavor. The grilled baby artichokes were just OK, but there were some tasty green and black olives and a wonderful little hunk of excellent Grana Padano cheese (a semi-hard grainy cheese a bit like Parmesan).
I find that it's hard to come by a really good veal scaloppini these days. Often, the veal is so thin and flavorless, and the breading overwhelms. Il Fornaio does a first-rate version with a bit thicker slice of veal that has a meaty flavor, covered in a crisp, thin breadcrumb coating.
It rested in a tasty sauce of the meat juices with a touch of lemon and a bit of flour for thickening. Sliced baby artichokes, roasted Yukon gold potatoes and veggies came on the side.
Ravioli alla Lucana is organic spinach ravioli filled with an almost pureed filling of Italian sausage, ricotta, Grana Padono and fennel. These tasty pillows came enrobed with a delicious fresh tomato sauce with a slightly spicy finish, accented with chunky bits of tomato and slivers of artichoke hearts on top.
We ordered the dessert trio for tasting purposes. This was the only part of a very good meal that we felt was just ordinary: good, but nothing was great.
Crespella di mele featured thin crepes stuffed with apples in caramel sauce. Raspberry sauce was poured on top. Vanilla gelato and a grappa-infused pastry cream were served on the side, but I couldn't taste the grappa. The crepes were nice, but the apples were very sweet and there was too much raspberry sauce.
Tiramisu was our least favorite. The ladyfingers had gotten soggy from the rum and espresso and were lost in the crowd. The best dessert was the rosino al cioccolato: chocolate mousse, raspberries and an orange crème anglais on top.
While thin-crusted pizzas baked in the oven and rotisserie chickens turned on the grill, we really felt like we were eating in Italy. Everything tasted freshly made, and to top off the experience, two gentlemen played bocce ball on the court outside.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where: 18051 Von Karman Ave., Irvine
When: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays
Appetizers: $8.99 to $15.99
Entrées: $11.99 to $39.99
Desserts: $3.99 to $14.99
Bottles: $28 to $75
By the glass: $7.99 to $15.99
Corkage fee: $20
Information: (949) 261-1444 or ilfornaio.com