Lunchtime hotspot Il Forno is still spot on after all these years

By Richard Foss

Il Forno brilliantly executes authentic cured meats and other Italian staples

It’s been a good 20 years since a friend invited me to join her for lunch at her favorite Italian restaurant, but I still remember being surprised at her choice. Patti seemed ecstatic about the food, and I recall thinking, “Il Fornaio is good for a corporate place, but what’s the big deal?”

I wasn’t the first person to confuse independent Santa Monica restaurant Il Forno with the similarly named chain restaurant, and I won’t be the last. (Il Forno translates to “the oven” and the other means “the baker,” in case you’re wondering.) We had the first of many fine meals there in a restaurant that was packed with savvy local office workers. We met several times after that, and always received good food and service despite daunting crowds.

And then we didn’t for a long time — she was no longer local after her company moved, and I sorta forgot about the place. The next time we both had a day off she suggested we return, and I looked forward to seeing how Il Forno had changed. We arrived at about 11:30 a.m., just after they opened, and my companion received a big welcome from co-owner Joseph, who greeted her like an old friend.

The place looked just about the way it always had, except for one thing: It was empty. A sea of tables awaited diners both inside and on the patio, and the servers had nothing to do but stroll around and straighten a napkin here, polish the bar over there. As we ordered a salad, pasta and pizza from the lunch menu I wondered aloud how a place that had been so popular could have fallen on such hard times. My companion smiled but didn’t say anything.

Fresh hot bread arrived in mere moments, along with olive oil with a drizzle of balsamic and a small mound of pureed garlic. And in short order, so did the salad Tropicale we had ordered — arugula, radicchio, avocado, hearts of palm and parmesan shavings accented with a lemon olive oil dressing. And as the salad showed up, so did an avalanche of customers; in minutes Il Forno went from empty to bustling.

Patti explained that this is the pattern here: when the local businesses break for lunch, Il Forno goes from idle to racing without any intermission. The servers who had been strolling around and prepping tables now strode purposefully around the room taking orders in one direction and plates in the other.

I ordered a daily special of a pizza topped with bresaola, feta and spinach. Bresaola is an Italian style of cured beef and is not a common pizza topping, but this pie made a good case for it. The drying and curing process intensifies the meaty flavor while a rub of salt and spices that includes cinnamon and juniper gives it a distinctive and exotic flavor. This meat is usually a bit chewy, but the time in the oven crisps it so that it’s easy to eat. The crust under that meat was medium thickness and arrived with a crisp bottom and just a bit of chewiness, which is exactly how I like it.

Chef Domenico Salvatore delivers the goods

My friend ordered penne puttanesca, which isn’t on the menu but is something they’ll make if you ask. It was spicy and flavorful, with the pickled flavors of capers and purple olives accenting a zesty, richly herbed tomato sauce. This is one of my favorite pasta preparations, and here they do it very well.

As for the salad Tropicale they brought to our table, the flavors were spot on but the arugula could have been cut a bit finer; with each forkful, you got a huge amount or none. It was the only misstep in the meal, and a very minor one at that.

On another visit I tried the house-made ravioli with spinach and ricotta in porcini mushroom sauce, and this dish showed that when a light touch is called for, Il Forno has it. This kitchen has proven it can go bold or let natural flavors shine, and not everyone can do that.

Il Forno’s location keeps it bustling at lunch thanks to the surrounding business community, but the spot that sizzles by day is a relaxing place to unwind in the evening and enjoy something from the wine list with your meal.

Chef Domenico Salvatore and founder Joseph Sucebveanu have been delivering consistent quality for over 30 years, and whether you’re looking for a grab-and-
go to take back to your desk or planning a special night out, they have what you need.

Il Forno Trattoria 2904 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 450-1241ilfornocaffe.com

Il Forno serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays; it opens for dinner at 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and at 5 p.m. Sundays. Wine and beer served; corkage is $20. Parking lot in back.

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