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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio

One of the things I like about Il Fornaio's monthly, regional menus is the chance to take an armchair journey to Italy. This month's region is Calabria.

Located on the toe of the Italian boot and extending into the Mediterranean, Calabria has developed dishes that feature seafood.

With a group of friends, we went to our neighborhood Il Fornaio in Santa Monica (1551 Ocean Avenue across from the Santa Monica Pier; 310/451-7800) and shared the dishes family style.

While we read through the menu, we ate baskets of Il Fornaio bread dipped in seasoned olive oil. The fresh bread is so delicious there's always the risk that we'll be full before we even begin the meal.

We started with bowls of the delicious three bean soup (Zuppa Millecuselle) which paired cannellini, borlotti, and garbanzo beans in a vegetarian broth, flavored with lentils, mushrooms, and cabbage and thickened with tomatoes. Adding the lentils was an especially nice touch because they grounded all the contrasting flavors.

We followed the soup with an inventive salad of organic greens (Insalata Monte Poro) with fried goat cheese balls, dressed with fresh strawberries and a strawberry-raspberry red wine vinaigrette. With these two dishes we had a Greco Bianco by Alberto and Antonio Statti (2007), a crisp, light white that complimented the soup and salad.

For our pasta course, we shared plates of spaghetti with shell fish (Spaghettata du Pescatori Calabrisi). Fresh black mussels, butter clams, calamari rings, and shrimp were tossed in a spicy tomato sauce with saltiness provided by capers and slices of giant green olives. We were still drinking the Greco but decided we should try the other wine from the region, a Gaglioppo also from the Satti brothers (2007).

For the main course we had a choice of chicken with mushrooms (Petto di Pollo alla Cacciatora), roasted boneless leg of lamb (Agnello Arrustutu), or a swordfish loin (Involtino di Spada). We decided on the swordfish because the menu said it was a favorite of the region.

Chef Bruno Amato, the Il Fornaio Chef-Partner, who designed the menu, prepared the fish in a manner I've never seen before. Instead of grilling the swordfish, he stuffed it with a mixture of shrimp, almonds, garlic, pecorino, and caciocavallo cheese. Topped with bread crumbs and drizzled with olive oil, the fish was a masterful combination of textures: crunchy, soft, and moist. Accompanying the fish were roasted potatoes, eggplant, and red and yellow peppers in a tomato sauce with a touch of heat. We had more of the Gaglioppo. It benefited from spending time in the glass. Its flavors had softened so it paired perfectly with the swordfish.

For dessert we had the ricotta pudding (Budino di Ricotta) which reminded me of ricotta cheese cakes I used to eat in Providence, Rhode Island. Not too sweet, a little on the dry side, and delightfully flavored with golden raisins, orange, and lemon zest

The regional menu is served until March 15th, so we have time to go back and try the ravioli stuffed with salami and ricotta (Ravioli ca 'Sopressata) and have another bowl of the delicious soup.

For more posts about Il Fornaio's Festa Regionale check out:
Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad
A Tasting at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica--Trentino-Alto Adige
A Trip to Italy is Just Around the Corner at Il Fornaio--Calabria
Il Fornaio Heads South to Campania for May's Regionale
Il Fornaio Heads North to Lombardia
Abruzzo at Il Fornaio, Santa Monica
Friuli-Venezia Giulia at Il Fornaio