A&E

Review: Il Fornaio's classic Italian stands the test of time

An elderly gentleman with a walker entered Il Fornaio just before me late one morning.

"You still serving breakfast?" the man inquired rather loudly of the receptionist.

"No, sir. Breakfast ended at 10:30. We're serving lunch now."

"Okay, I'll have lunch then, and I want to sit on the patio, please."

Il Fornaio has established a longtime comfort level with its customers in the 34 years it has been open in downtown Palo Alto's Garden Court Hotel on Cowper Street. Like an old friend, it's familiar and comfortable. Not that the food is antiquated in any way; it is fresh, vibrant, thoroughly modern and authentically Italian, prepared by chef-partner Luigi Mavica, a Sicily native.

The original Howard J. Backen design is classic. Other than behind-the-scenes kitchen upgrades, the dining rooms, garden patio and open-kitchen concept have remained basically unchanged, inviting and stylish since opening.

Two weeks each month, Il Fornaio celebrates the cuisine of a different region of Italy, with supplemental menus for both food and wine. Festa Regionale offers constantly changing bills of fare, highlights the regional differences in Italian cuisine and delivers excellent values -- more on that later.

For starters, the capesante con riso di venere ($13.29) featured a succulent grilled sea scallop with a dash of cayenne on a black-rice salad of fennel, radicchio, parsley and red-wine vinegar, all drizzled with basil olive oil and lemon dressing. The taste balance and visual harmony of the plate was appealing.

The Caprese salad ($11.79) was sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and whole basil leaves sprinkled with basil-infused olive oil. Nothing wrong with the attractive plate, but I expected better tomatoes as it was the peak of heirloom tomato season. In this instance, it seemed the kitchen sacrificed palatability for a pretty presentation.

Il Fornaio offers a half-dozen pizzas. I liked the vegetariana ($14.59) with mozzarella, tomato sauce, artichokes, zucchini, eggplant, sliced tomatoes, mushrooms and fresh basil. Just enough ingredients to make it tasty without overload. The just-right crust was semi soft, pliable and chewy.

Pasta? Of course. A half-dozen, dry, house-made options plus lasagna, cannelloni and specials. Ravioli magro ($12.99) was filled with rainbow chard, kale, onions, pine nuts and pecorino cheese, and tossed with sauteed artichokes, white wine, tomatoes and parsley. The ravioli were plump and mouthwatering, the toppings more than ample. As artistic as it was tasty.

The special vegetarian tortelloni ($18.59) were appealingly plump house-made pasta pockets filled with red beets, ricotta and pecorino cheeses, and topped with silky sage cream sauce sprinkled with poppy seeds.

For main courses, the mixed fish grill ($25.99) of salmon, petrale, prawn, sea scallop and calamari with lemon parsley sauce was an enormous plate of seafood. Add to that grilled polenta and sauteed seasonal vegetables, and it was more than any diner could have hoped for. The plate was zesty and fresh and the fish perfectly prepared.

Veal scaloppini ($24.99) did not disappoint. Three not too thinly sliced pieces of fork-tender veal had been sauteed with fresh baby artichokes and lemon, then served with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and a medley of seasonal vegetables -- quintessentially Italian.

As mentioned earlier, Festa Regionale offers excellent value. During this review time, "Taste of Veneto" was featured. On that menu we tried the capesante ($13.29), the tortelloni ($18.59) and the mixed fish grill ($25.99). That added up to $57.87 but was priced at $31.99. That's a deal. The Veneto menu offered a choice of four antipasti, three pastas and three main dishes.

As for desserts, the crema doppio ($7.99) was a fennel-infused custard with chocolate mousse and caramelized sugar topping. A chocolate-covered creme brulee by another definition. It was delicious but a bit overwhelming after a big dinner.

More to my taste was the bianco magiare ($7.99), an almond custard topped with caramel sauce, toasted almonds and fresh berries. In essence, a delicate panna cotta topped with toasted almond slivers, fruit on the side. A perfect conclusion.

Steve Boyden, longtime Il Fornaio managing partner, has covered all the bases. Besides the regular and Festa Regionale menus, there are a children's menu, a gluten-free menu and banquet menus, and every dish on the menu lists its calorie content.

The wine list is not overwhelming, quantity wise or pricewise, and selections complement the food. There are many drinkable wines in the $35-$75 range. Naturally, Italian and California wines dominate the list.

Few restaurants survive three decades and many that do have a fierce and loyal clientele who never want the menu changed. Il Fornaio has preserved its classic dishes while infusing new and intriguing options each month. It's a great formula.

Il Fornaio

520 Cowper St., Palo Alto

650-353-3888

ilfornaio.com

Breakfast: Weekdays 7-10:30 a.m.; Sat.-Sun. 8-11 a.m. Brunch: 
Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Lunch & dinner: 
Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Reservations: yes

Credit cards: yes

Parking: city lots & valet

Alcohol: full bar

Children: yes

Outdoor dining: covered patios

Party and banquet facilities: yes

Noise level: moderate

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

Corkage: $15 unlimited

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