After 20 years as Antonello's award-winning chef, Franco Barone opened his own restaurant in 2009 with his wife, Donatella. Lots of good buzz finally brought us to Il Barone Ristorante, a pleasant bistro tucked away in the rear of a business and restaurant plaza in Newport Beach.
We liked the look, size and sound level in this warm contemporary space. The entry brings you into a small waiting area with a bar. We sat in the smaller of the two dining areas, a few steps up. Attractive black mesh curtains separate the rooms. Gray-silver walls and muted abstract paintings combined with warm low lighting and candles on white linen-draped tables create a relaxing ambience. Soft strains from classic Italian crooners fill the background with nostalgic sounds.
We are both big fans of octopus and arugula, so it was an obvious choice to select the polipo sedano e arugula. These thick, well-seasoned slices were grilled and served warm on a large bed of arugula, wilting the greens slightly. We couldn't find nor did we miss any sedano (celery), although we did find some small cubes of potatoes. The dressing was a simple lemon and olive oil mixture, and it all worked together to create a tasty mélange.
Straciatella is like an Italian version of egg drop soup. Eggs, parsley and cheese are beaten together and stirred into the hot chicken broth, creating shred-like strands. Some modern versions like this one also add spinach. The broth was very light but lacked character. It wasn't our favorite rendition of this soup.
Munching on bread sticks and a delicious creamy garlic parsley dip, we poured over the long list of house-made pasta offerings, trying to decide which shape we were in the mood for. We usually choose whatever pasta is house-made but here the entire selection is "fatta in casa."
We finally decided on Terry's favorite, pappardelle, flat, long and wide noodles with rippled edges. It is done here as malfade al funghi misti trifolati (sautéed mushrooms). The simple preparation of earthy sautéed mushrooms with garlic, olive oil, basil and parsley provided just the right amount of flavor to let the chewy, satisfying pasta become the star.
Pizza lovers will find three thin-crusted selections including one with ricotta, Sicilian sausage and eggplant.
Secondi (Italian entrées) are never our first choices on an Italian menu. We really prefer the appetizers and pastas best, but a good Milanese (veal or chicken) can be tempting, so we went for it. The thinly pounded chicken breast is rolled in seasoned breadcrumbs and fried. Getting the breadcrumbs golden brown and crunchy while keeping the meat moist and flavorful can be a tricky proposition, not to mention the danger of a greasy crust.
Chef Barone has successfully navigated around all of these pitfalls. We were just missing a little more oomph in the seasoning. We requested all vegetables instead of potatoes and were delighted with the garlic-flecked broccolini, but the plain baby carrots were just that.
Fish are always offered as specials, based on what is freshest at the market. There are also entrée selections of tripe, beef, veal and chicken.
On our quest for the perfect cannoli, we may have found a serious contender. This Sicilian pastry is a tube-shaped deep-fried shell rolled around a ricotta cheese filling.
Chef Barone orders his ricotta directly from Sicily, and it is definitely different from what we are used to. It is subtle and delicate with a hint of lemony sourness. It has been deftly sweetened with a light hand, while bits of dark chocolate add texture and extra flavor to the luscious filling. The crust was thin and so very crispy that it crumbled into the creamy filling with each forkful.
If you dine at Il Barone Ristorante on Monday through Wednesday, you will enjoy the perk of no corkage fee for up to two bottles of wine.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Il Barone Ristorante
Where: 4251 Martingale Way, Newport Beach
Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Dinner: 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Starters and Pizzas: $8-$15
By the glass: $5-$20
Corkage Fee: Free Monday through Wednesday
$20 per bottle Thursday through Saturday
Call: (949) 955-2755