Il Fornaio: The Irvine House That Bread Built

Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

It's Saturday night live at Il Fornaio, Irvine's stunning new gastro-palazzo. There isn't an empty table in sight.

This high-tech, high-energy restaurant--a labyrinth of white tile, blond wood and gleaming stainless steel--is about as far from your basic neighborhood pasta house as can be. It may also just be the flashiest restaurant ever to open in Orange County. When I ask a manager how much the place costs, he lowers his voice and replies, "Almost $4 million."

No doubt. Just look around: acres of stone for a floor, an all-open kitchen, tile pizza ovens as big as brewery vats and a glittering bar with a giant glass beacon centerpiece filled with (get this) Negroni punch, a European cocktail made with sweet vermouth, gin and Campari.

We luck out, or so we are told by a fashion-model-gorgeous hostess dressed in a sleek black suit worthy of a top Italian designer. Apparently at every seating one party is chosen at random to occupy the restaurant's cucina table, smack in the middle of a cooking production line behind the main seating area, and tonight we're it. As she leads us to our table, we get a mini-tour of the kitchen worthy of an early James Bond adventure.

"This is the Rotunda Room," she coos. "You'll notice that the top is completely exposed to the sky. And here is where we do our baking." She points to a massive glass wall shielding a commercial-size bakery just behind our sumptuous marble topped table. " Buon appetito. "

We truly are in the house that bread built. Il Fornaio, in case you are not familiar with it, is a chain of upscale bakeries specializing in regional Italian breads and pastries. Despite a stiff pricing structure, it has been wildly successful. About five years back, the chain's owners opened a fine dining establishment, Gastronomia Italiana, in San Francisco, following up with another in tony Del Mar. This then, is the chain's third, and easily most ambitious, fine dining venture.

Looking around, we still cannot quite believe it. Directly in front of us are a squad of kitchen helpers, pasta makers, tomato choppers and ravioli stuffers. Behind us are trays and trays laden with bread sticks, sweet rolls and the crusty bread that we are just seconds away from dipping into pools of the restaurant's pale green extra virgin olive oil (a commodity also marketed in bottles on tables scattered throughout the property). This isn't a restaurant; it's an industry. We feel like we are sitting center stage at one of those youth symphony violin concerts.

What comes from this kitchen is often a bit industrial, too, although quite a lot of it has real style. Some of these dishes reach a bit too far toward originality. Still others come off with a bang.

The first appetizer on the menu, bomba, says a lot about this place. It's a giant, delicious focaccia bread, baked in an oakwood oven and covered with smoked prosciutto. The waiters make a big show of cutting it up, at which point it deflates to cracker dimensions. What I mean to say, I guess, is that flash gets considerable scope here, as is true in a disturbing number of our restaurants.

Melanzane al formaggio di capra is just plain terrific. The dish doesn't actually sound all that promising, just grilled eggplant with goat cheese after all, but it soars with the addition of sweet, marinated onions mingled gently with the taste surprise of capers and sun-dried tomatoes.

Zuppa d'orzo is terrific, too, discrete little pearls of barley in a lusty bean broth rocked by a healthy pinch of fresh sage. The wonderful pappa con pomodoro is a bit mushy in Il Fornaio's hands, but worth a go nonetheless. It's a simple but appealing Tuscan soup made from soaked bread, chunked tomato and lots of olive oil.

Pastas here tend to do that stretching I referred to. Mezzelune alle erbe amare is a plate of crescent-shaped ravioli stuffed with fresh ricotta and slightly bitter dandelion greens, and Il Fornaio darn near brings it off (too bad the ravioli are drowned in an oily brown butter). Ravioli di verdura con salsa di noci filled with spinach, Swiss chard and basil comes in a pine nut and walnut sauce, which is simply too rich. More basic pastas, such as angel hair al pomodoro naturale or pennette all'amatriciana, chewy little tubes in a fresh tomato sauce with Italian bacon and pecorino cheese, are better. All pastas here, anyway, are fresh and al dente.

Spit-roasted meats turn slowly on rotisseries, strategically placed in full view of almost everybody. Gamba d'agnello and coniglio nostrano, just two items from the rotating daily menu, are irresistible. The agnello, or leg of lamb, gets its savory appeal from garlic and rosemary. Coniglio is tender Sonoma rabbit, wrapped in pancetta.

Bistecca alla Fiorentina isn't cooked on the spit, but it is one of Italy's most famous dishes. Real Florentine beefsteak is pounded thin and cooked outdoors, two attributes this dish lacks, but Il Fornaio's dry-aged, 16-ounce Porterhouse has been marinated in olive oil and rosemary and comes with a crock of white beans and fabulous sauteed spinach. It's simply the best thing here.

The restaurant's much ballyhooed desserts leave me a bit cold. Affogato al caffe is a humdrum white chocolate ice cream with espresso, and these grainy gelati aren't a whole lot better. Biscotti assorti is an assortment of cookies from the bakery, and now we're talking--it's a small feast of cookies with names that are easy to forget: fagottini ai lampone (raspberry jam pockets), Fiorentini (almond lattices) and baci d'Alassio (chocolate kisses). Nothing could go better with the good house espresso.

It's not all love and kisses around here. Service can be painfully slow, and the mostly Italian team of waiters often treat you as if their attention is a privilege.

Furthermore, this menu, while original, is far from what you'd call polished. They've got flash down pat in this place. Now, they can start working on substance.

An aside: Un Poco di Tutti, the complex's impressive bakery, has superb breads, wonderful breakfast pastries and some of the best coffee drinks in the county.

Il Fornaio is moderately expensive. Antipasti are $3.95 to $7.95. Pizzas are $6.95 to $10.95. Pastas are $4.25 to $10.95. Grilled meats are $8.95 to $17.50. Desserts are $3.75 to $4.95.

* IL FORNAIO GASTRONOMIA ITALIANA

* 18051 Von Karman Ave., Irvine.

* (714) 261- 1444.

* Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m.

* All major cards accepted.

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