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The Gossiping Gourmet: Authentic Italian, complete with bocce ball

February 26, 2014|By Terry Markowitz
  • Ravioli Alla Lucana at Il Fornaio in Irvine.
Ravioli Alla Lucana at Il Fornaio in Irvine. (KEVIN CHANG, HB…)

My husband and I have been fans of Il Fornaio since the late '80s, when we used to drive into Los Angeles just to get a good Italian meal.

Orange County has changed a lot since then, but we were very pleased when Il Fornaio opened its doors locally. We ate there often, but as the culinary scene expanded exponentially in the O.C., we didn't get back for many years. So the other night, we were delighted to discover that Il Fornaio is as good as we remembered.

Since our last visit, the restaurant in Irvine has added a big patio in front with two bocce ball courts beside it. The interior has the feel of a modern Italian restaurant with an enormous open kitchen in the back featuring two huge wood-burning beehive ovens and lots of white tiles.

What makes Il Fornaio special is its commitment to fresh Italian food. The chefs bake their own breads daily and make their pastas in-house, except for the dried pastas, which are imported from Italy. Gluten-free pastas are available as well. For two weeks each month, a second menu offering the cuisine from one of Italy's 20 food regions is available.

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As we munched on the delicious bread, still warm from the oven, my favorite dinner guest and I decided to share the antipasto plate, with its very good thinly sliced prosciutto, equally good garlicky salami, wonderful caponata and crunchy vegetables including sweet onions, squash, carrots, spinach, zucchini and raisins, all in a well-balanced, sweet dressing. It may have been the best I've ever tasted.

The tomato bruschetta was on soft, thick bread and lacked the crunchy texture that sets off the soft tomato slices. Also, this is not tomato season, and the thick slice lacked flavor. The grilled baby artichokes were just OK, but there were some tasty green and black olives and a wonderful little hunk of excellent Grana Padano cheese (a semi-hard grainy cheese a bit like Parmesan).

I find that it's hard to come by a really good veal scaloppini these days. Often, the veal is so thin and flavorless, and the breading overwhelms. Il Fornaio does a first-rate version with a bit thicker slice of veal that has a meaty flavor, covered in a crisp, thin breadcrumb coating.

It rested in a tasty sauce of the meat juices with a touch of lemon and a bit of flour for thickening. Sliced baby artichokes, roasted Yukon gold potatoes and veggies came on the side.

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