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May 17, 2004 09:08 PM

Il Fornaio

  • d

Went for a long walk with the missus last night and ended up at the counter at Il Fornaio in Beverly Hills (301 N Beverly Dr., (310) 550-8330). First, let me just say that if I ever hit the lottery, I'd like to have a kitchen like theirs, with its giant five skewer bronze rotisserie turning over a beautiful oak fire, its real wood burning pizza oven, and the big open grill over blazing mesquite charcoal. Also, being able to watch people cook with these "appliances" makes sitting at the counter a real treat, at least if you can deal with the kitchen envy.

As soon as we were seated (which was within 3 minutes of walking in at 8 pm on a Sunday) we got the obligatory basket of Il Fornaio bread, a nice combination of different kinds of bread and breadsticks, all fresh, and a dish of olive oil for dipping. For starters, we each ordered a bowl of minestrone soup, which was excellent. I've always liked Il Fornaio's version of this soup, with abundant fresh vegetables and good clean flavor. (Wonder what they use as a stock/base?) Topped with grated parmesan on request. Simple, but very satisfying.

For our main course, we split the pollo mattone alla diavola off their "festa regionale" menu of Tuscan dishes. This consisted of a half chicken, partially boned, marinated with herbs and peperoncino, grilled (on the aforementioned mesquite coal) under a brick. It was served with roasted fingerling potatoes and a nice salad of baby spinach, white beans, red onion, and cherry tomatoes. They brought out the dish on a single plate, gave each of us a small plate of our own, and let us take care of the division, which worked out perfectly (at least from my perspective). The chicken was incredibly juicy with a perfect crispy sear from the grill, and, based on how hot it was, I'd guess it was put down in front of us within 90 seconds of coming off the fire. Served with half a fresh lemon (and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice really highlights the flavors of this kind of cooking). I pretty much inhaled my half, and a fair amount of my better half's half.

I know Il Fornaio is something of a chain and gets mixed reviews on this board, but I have to say, this meal hit just the right note for me. It was simple and direct, even kind of elegant. I've enjoyed Il Fornaio for breakfast for years, but the couple of times in the past when I've been there for lunch or dinner, I've always been disappointed. Not this time. The key, I think, must be to order dishes that take advantage of all that fabulous cooking equipment on display. While we were eating, we saw about dozen pizzas go into and then come out of that wood burning oven. I love the slightly smoky flavor of pizza cooked this way (like in Nice), and I suspect one of these puppies will be tried on our next visit.

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  1. Having done several years of their monthly regional menus (I'm a sucker for these) including various awards for complete sets, and having visited locations all over the West Coast (Seattle, Corte Madera, San Francisco, Pasadena, and Santa Monica), I have finally written the place off. Your experience is what I always expect but never get. The wood oven entrees are very limited, executions never seem to live up to the descriptions, and service is sometimes impersonal and lax.
    If I were to give an award for great concept and marketing and poor execution this would be a contender.
    The bread, however, is exceptional, even when it is purchased from supermarkets. Ralph's seems to have a regular delivery. Best Ciabatta in the City.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Griller141

      Agreed. The service is always so mid-80s mall, too, which half ruins anything for me. What keeps me coming back is the fact that they have carpaccio. What keeps me from enjoying it is that it's all I ever want, and when I request a double order, I am inevitably told that the plates are pre-made and would I like two at once or would I prefer them consecutively? They seem unable to take a special order, which shouldn't be that hard with what is essentially a salad (ice-cold and pre-plated at that). It seems to me that they should at least have some sensitivity to the appearance of the thing, but Pasadena, Burlingame, and Santa Monica have all been the same.

      Also, I can never remember that I must specify when I order a san pellegrino that I don't want it in a glass full of ice.

      One major plus: I understand Il Forniao supplies the dt Palm's flatbread, and that it's the only place where it is available. I can't get enough of this stuff.

      1. re: Dbird

        Same disappointing experience recently when we met a friend at the SM location for the Abruzzi menu. Arrived hungry for lunch only to be told that the regional menu is only served at dinner. Our Italian companion was happy with the carpaccio too but the unctious waiter who must have been taking a break from his emotive acting lessons gave me a headache and wouldn't leave us alone he was so interruptive.
        I just enjoyed the bread and wondered too why such a great concept falls to the side. Just a little effort and it would be fine. Made me wish we had gone to the Ivy next door.

    2. We really like the BH Il Fornaio, specifically the counter, for Sunday brunch. I like the Italian sausage which comes in a long curl anchored by toothpicks. Then we browse at the big Williams-Sonoma up the block, and now there's the fab new Crate & Barrel too.

      I had brunch at the Santa Monica Il Fornaio a couple of months ago with some girlfriends and it was sorely lacking both in menu options and in service. For some reason I thought the SM location would have the same Sunday brunch menu as BH, but I was incorrect.

      My mom really likes the Irvine Il Fornaio and we have family dinners there occasionally. We just had our Mother's Day dinner there and before that a dinner for my grandmother's 94th birthday on New Year's Day. On Mother's Day my husband devoured his entire order of the Tuscan special pollo mattone. He loved it. I got the lasagne which I actually like there, baked in a ramekin and not very goopy or cheesy. At our New Year's Day dinner, my mom and I were each given a whole ciabatta to take home. The next day I turned it into a great bread pudding with some bittersweet chocolate chunks.

      1. Thanks for the review, David. I have always hoped for great meals at Il Fornaio, but like the others have been a bit disappointed. Those wonderful smokey Italian smells always entice me, but I seem to always order the wrong things, e.g., very boring and bland pasta dishes. Next time, I will make a point to try their mesquite coal-grilled dishes

        1. Il Fornaio in Irvine has always supplied a better than average experience, including food and service. It strikes me as strange, though, that one would order pasta for the evening meal here. The rotisserie and grill are very good.

          1. I'm going to agree with you across the board. I'll often walk there from home in Century City and am never disappointed. I love sitting at the counter and watching food-as-theatre.

            Pizzas are excellent; breads, of course. Many fine dishes (lobster ravioli) even the pre-made carpaccio.

            Service is competent and wine list is fairly priced. It is NOT a cutting-edge restaurant experience but a highly reliable one. All of that said, locations away from The Hills of Beverly have been lacking on occasion.