By Kelley Carlson
Il Fornaio restaurant may be about as close as you can get to Italy without leaving the United States. From its Old World decor to its imported dry pastas, the establishment’s goal is to offer an authentic experience. (“Il Fornaio” means “The Baker” in Italian.)
The Del Mar location — second-oldest of the 22 in the chain — is rich with deep, dark woods, textured ceilings that appear timeworn, and ocher-colored walls. Ceramic pieces of art and wine bottles artistically dot the main dining room, while timeless pictures of Italy grace the sides. Patrons can observe the preparations of their food by the chef, Sicilian native Roberto Gerbino, in the open exhibition kitchen. Red-and-black stools hug the marble bar at the south end of the area, as an overhead TV telecasts sports and the occasional news program.
Hidden in the back of the restaurant is the private Tuscan Room, which seats up to 24 people and is decorated in a scheme similar to the main dining room. Its French doors open up to a spacious back patio surrounded by foliage.
From the main and cocktail piazzas, guests can gaze out through glass at the ocean while listening to contemporary Italian and American big-band music. The main piazza’s marble tables and Italian-imported chairs are shaded by a large, striped covering supported by columns. The smaller, open-air cocktail piazza is adjacent, with cream-colored umbrellas and heat lamps to provide protection from the elements.
While reservations at Il Fornaio are encouraged, event coordinator Anissa Roberts said piazza seating cannot be guaranteed unless it’s through special arrangement. “But we do our best to honor requests,” she added.
As expected, weekends are typically the busiest, as well as the Del Mar racing season and the winter holidays. Roberts said that lunch is a great time to come in and avoid the crowds.
Across the public patio — decorated with flowers, plants, seating and umbrellas — is Enoteca del Fornaio, the restaurant’s stand-alone, full-service bar. Guests can walk up to the windows and order a beer, glass of wine or a specialty cocktail and sit on the patio, where they can also eat and receive limited service from Il Fornaio. There is some indoor seating at Enoteca, with bar stools and small, round tables. The room features a painted scene of the Italian countryside, wooden wine racks and a TV. The hours of Enoteca vary, depending on the weather, but the majority of the time, it’s open by 1 p.m. and closes at the same time as Il Fornaio.
A number of Il Fornaio’s ingredients are imported from Italy; many items are house-made, such as non-dry pastas, dressings and bread, some of which is sold in Fresh & Easy markets.
Brunch is served at the same time as lunch on weekends and includes items like Omelette Alla Contadina (omelet with red onions, smoked bacon and potatoes, grilled polenta and gorgonzola cheese) and Pizza Papalina (pizza with onions, crispy potatoes, ham and scrambled eggs).
For lunch and dinner, there’s antipasti, soups and salads, pizza, pasta — the Cappellacci di Zucca (ravioli filled with butternut squash and walnuts) is the most popular — along with dishes such as Pollo Toscano (chicken with rosemary, roasted potatoes and Tuscan salad) and Scaloppine ai Carciofi e Limone (veal with baby artichokes and lemon, roasted potatoes and sauteed vegetables). Menus that feature items from a specific region of Italy are offered the first two weeks of each month.
For the full Italian experience, Roberts suggests ordering multi-course meals with wine, followed by Tiramisu for dessert and a cup of cappuccino.
Special menus are available for children, and include activities and crayons.
“Italian people are known to love family and food,” Roberts said. “I think it comes through here. The management is very welcoming.”
Il Fornaio holds monthly cooking classes and wine dinners, and on Sunday evenings starting Aug. 28, it will present “Fellini and Bellini Nights” with films by Federico Fellini and $3 Bellini cocktails on the patio. On-site banquets and off-site catering are also available.
On The Menu Recipe
Il Fornaio’s Cappellacci di Zucca
23 oz. all-purpose flour
9 oz. semolina extra-fancy flour
2 large eggs
10.5 oz. pumpkin puree
1/2 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2/3 tsp. salt
Directions: Put flour and semolina in mixer. Beat together eggs, salt, olive oil and pumpkin puree. Mix dry and wet ingredients together for 10 to 15 minutes, using dough hook.
2 large roasted butternut squash
6 oz. parmesan
2 pinches salt
2 pinches pepper
2 pinches nutmeg
6 oz. toasted walnuts
Directions: Cut butternut squash in half. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven, skin side up, with olive oil until tender, approximately 45 minutes. Puree squash with parmesan and nutmeg. Mix in chopped walnuts. Dish is garnished with fried sage, marinara and brown butter sauce.
Makes approximately 6 servings (5 pieces each).