Il Fornaio Restaurant Review by Kristen & Guy
It's no secret among my friends, that I have been obsessed with Italy for a long time. I'm not sure why, but my infatuation has prompted me to buy countless 'How to Speak Italian' CD's and to try my hand at making everything from gnocci to gelato (yes, I can actually make gelato.) So when it was suggested that we check out 'Il Fornaio', I couldn't help but respond with a resounding 'Andiamo!' (‘lets go’ in my favorite language).
I knew that I would love the place, with its cool downtown ambiance and its charming covered patio, but I quickly realized that my passion for ‘All Things Italian’ may influence my review of this restaurant. So Guy and I decided to bring along a guest, our producer, Lilly who has actually been to Italy.
So here we were a tough critic and two clueless critics (I'll let you figure out which was which) and a menu that an Italian paper boy would be proud to toss on your doorstep. We started with the Antipasti and a shared assortment of polenta (served with a delectable mushroom and sausage topping), calamari and carpaccio (thinly sliced raw beef with cheese, capers, arugula and olive oil on top). The plates arrived at our table full and left spotless. I mean 'you could have seen your face in them' spotless. I am a huge fan of polenta and this was tops. I couldn't wait for more!
With an enormous menu of fabulous salads, pizzas, pasta and specialties from the grill, choosing an entree was like being told you could visit the Italian mainland but only one city: Venice, Tuscany, Rome, Milan - how do you decide? After working myself into a bit of a fluster over the pizza margherita or the insalata di spinaci or the penne veccia genova, our darling waiter, Tyler reminded me of the specials. Aaah’ I'll take it! And a short while later I was staring down at the most amazing red snapper baked in white wine sauce that my Italian-loving self had ever seen. In an effort to reduce the carbs in my diet (between us only because I had a feeling that dessert would be spectacular), I skipped the bread basket and asked for only veggies as a side with my snapper. And oh, were these veggies divine, on a side note - skipping the bread basket was really a risky decision. You see, 'Il Fornaio' means 'the baker' in Italian; which basically guarantees that the bread basket would be a dining experience in itself. Nonetheless red snapper was snapped up,I shared with everyone at the table and yes, they all mmm'd and aaah'd appropriately and agreed it was divine.
Bring on the desserts or dolci as they say in Italy. First of all, the whole concept of 'dessert carts' where they actually display life-sized samples of what you're about to order so that you can physically drool, is just vicious. As the cart rolled its way towards us, I guarantee that we all went from thinking 'should I have dessert?' to 'should I have one of each?'. So we did. We ordered everything. Everything on the cart. Oh and two of the tiramisu. They were amazing. Divine. As we devoured the last of it, our conversation turned to one thing ‘quanto potere andare dinuvo’. Translation: ‘When can we go again?’
I usually subscribe to the old adages of ‘Good things come to those who wait,’ ‘Save the best for last’ and ‘Impatient boys often miss dessert’ except when it comes to the dessert tray at Il Fornaio. I'm skipping way ahead of myself, because my whole meal during a recent lunch outing with my co-host Kristen and a couple of friends was exceptional, but the dessert was so good that I now know to order it first when I still have room in my stomach.
Okay, first of all, let me say that I am not a big chocolate fan. It's usually the last thing I would ever order. Offer me a fork-full of your chocolate cake and I'll most likely decline. That was before I tasted Il Fornaio's Crema al Doppio Gusto, a fennel infused custard with chocolate mousse and caramelized sugar topping. It is absolute heaven! Our group ordered a bunch of desserts to share including the bread pudding, the apple crepes, the tiramisu (one of my favorites) and the Zabaione alla Gritti (a sort of Italian sundae with sorbet), but I kept going back for just one more spoonful of the Crema al Doppio Gusto. It was almost embarrassing how I was monopolizing that dessert. It was quite apparent that I was ‘gettin' my Gusto on!’
Before I go on and work backwards from dessert to the main course, I'd like to comment on how wonderful our service was. I am a stickler for customer service: Be informed. Be attentive (but don't hover.) Be friendly. Make suggestions. And don't focus all of your attention on my gorgeous dining companion. Our waiter, Tyler, was all of these things. What's more, he had an engaging sense of humor. In fact, you owe it to yourself to request his section. All in all, it was one of the best dining experiences I've had in quite awhile. But let's get back to the food.
I love Italian food. I would even go so far as to say it is my all time favorite. So it's no wonder that I have a terrible time deciding what to order. That's why an informed waiter is so helpful. And I appreciate it when they are honest about what they like and don't like on the menu. When I had trouble deciding between one of the specials, the Gnocchi alla Sorrentina (homemade potato dumplings, marinara, fresh mozzarella cheese and basil) and the Cappellacci di Zucca (ravioli filled with butternut squash and walnuts, tomato sauce, brown butter, parmesan and crispy sage), Tyler did not hesitate for a second. He suggested the butternut squash ravioli dish saying that it was the reason he took the job at Il Fornaio. That's quite a recommendation! Tyler was absolutely correct: It was delicious. And that's why you can now find me picking up shifts at the restaurant!
Now let's move from main course to salad. Most of the time I consider salad ‘filler’- you know, the healthy stuff that hogs all the space in your stomach when you'd rather be making space for the Cappellacci di Zucca and the Crema al Doppio Gusto. I have to admit that considering the delights I had coming, the salad was a bit of a let down. I ordered the Insalata di Spinaci (organic baby spinach salad with aged ricotta, red onions, applewood-smoked bacon, champignon mushrooms and toasted walnuts.) I think the problem is that the vinaigrette was a bit too light for my taste. All the ingredients were wonderful, but the dressing didn't seem to add any zip to the salad. In hindsight, my recommendation is to ask if there are any other dressing choices. I'm positive Tyler could make some suggestions on how to make the dish more zestful.
It's appetizer time! Or as the Italians call it: Antipasti. Remember I'm working backwards, so at this point our little group is quite hungry, especially after getting a whiff of the mouthwatering aromas wafting through the restaurant on our way to our table. After being seated in the inviting, light-filled patio, we quickly snapped our menus open and began the debate on which antipasti we would order and share. It came down to the Carpaccio (thinly sliced raw beef, shaved grana, capers and wild arugula drizzled with lemon-olive oil), the calamari and the polenta topped with mushrooms and sausage. Now remember, I said share, which did politely until it got to the last few morsels on each plate - then it was every man (and woman) for themselves.
I can't remember a time when I had a better meal and dining experience. The staff at Il Fonaio is awesome, the food is out of this world and the atmosphere is warm, casual, friendly and fun. So in the future whenever I find myself yearning for a trip to Italy and I discover the coffers are low, I'll do the next best thing - take an affordable and convenient trip downtown to Il Fornaio, get a table in Tylers section and order the Crema al Doppio Gusto first!