Over Thanksgiving break I spent a week gallivanting around the streets of New York. For a first visit, the notoriously crabby winter weather truly didn’t disappoint – it was the coldest week on record in the city since January, and Winter Storm Boreas made things slightly, shall we say, damp.
What did disappoint, however, was a certain world-famous Italian restaurant that shall remain unnamed. After roughing it out on the frigid streets of the Upper East Side, I was thoroughly looking forward to being pampered by a coddling cavalcade of la cucina della nonna; the Michelin-starred Big Apple institution was, after all, a significant part of why I was in the city. I won’t even dignify it with a detailed recount of the horrific meal, but suffice to say, insect legs do not an haute cuisine garnish make.
And so – Italian-induced PTSD attacks ongoing – I approached Palo Alto’s very own Italian institution, Il Fornaio, with great trepidation. The restaurant, which incidentally is as old as I am, runs a regional festival two weeks out of every month, serving up local specialties from each of 11 handpicked regions in Italy. They had me at hellocal.
Clearly my worries were unwarranted, because the meal was everything that I had hoped it to be. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the region of the month was the Piemonte, a sprawling estate in the North bordering France and Switzerland that is world-renowned for its spectacular white truffles and carnaroli rice.
We started off with the zuppa di patate, porcini e porri, a uniquely Italian take on the classic French vichyssoise soup. The porcini added a wonderful meatiness to the dish, elevated by a delicate drizzle of white truffle oil; meanwhile, a fontina-topped crouton could not have been put to better use than to mop up the last drops of the soup.
Our appetites suitably whetted, we moved on to the insalata del Furmagiat, a verdant mix of Belgian endive, Bosc pear, garbanzo beans, arugula and farro. Now, people who know me know that I’d sooner become a peasant farmer than eat farro, but in the name of journalistic valor I had a mouthful…and then another, and another, until it had all but vanished off my plate. The gastronomic alchemy here lay in a divine boschetta al tartufo, a semi-soft cheese speckled with earthy shavings of Alba white truffle that is rarely found outside of Italy.
A tasting platter of four different pasta offerings was next. The gnocchi con brasato coniglio paired dense potato dumplings with a rich ragù of braised rabbit, delightfully avoiding the musky gaminess that the animal tends to retain; shavings of grana padano imparted an appropriately salty tang to the warm, comforting dish. Cannelloni alla montanara quickly followed: Fork-tender house-made pasta tubes were stuffed with prosciutto di Parma, mortadella, veal, spinach and Grana Padano, held together with a silky tomato-tarragon béchamel sauce. Oven-baked, this dish singlehandedly made me question why anyone ever bothered with Chef Boyardee lasagne (or any other food, for that matter).
The agnolotti di fonduta ai porcini brought together ravioli of fontina, which were coated in an intensely creamy porcini sauce. Truffles were never far from sight in this meal, and the unctuous parcels were infused with the deep, powerful scent of white truffles, making it truly ambrosial.
Saving the best for the last, the risotto con porcini e gamberetti was a dense heap of creamy grains imported from the town of Vercelli, cooked to that perfect consistency the Italians call all’onda, or “wave-like.” The porcini and prawns afforded both textural contrast and a magnificent umami savoriness to the dish, rounding off its heaviness with natural sweetness.
The parade of stellar dishes marched gloriously on, starting with a unique filetto di branzino all’uva – a wild sea bass filet sautéed with champagne vinegar, thyme and green grapes. Pan-fried to a crisp, the pristine fish combined with the sweet tartness of the grapes in a delicate flourish that few chefs are able to achieve. The suprema di pollo ripiena, perhaps more familiar to American palates, nevertheless managed to surprise: Breaded and pan-fried, a hefty chunk of chicken breast was stuffed with prosciutto di Parma and fontina cheese, oozing out in a most graphic manner (almost too NSFW to describe). Drizzled with a Dijon mustard sauce – the French town is, after all, right across the border from Piemonte – the dish was an exercise in decadence.
But nothing could come close to the unbridled debauchery that was the brasato al Barbera, a breathtaking heap of beef short ribs braised for hours in Barbera, the King of Wines; short of sipping on the velvety red on the balcony of an Italian villa on a balmy fall evening, this was perhaps the best way to encounter it. As if in a nominal attempt to ameliorate the sinfulness of the meat, root vegetables, mashed potatoes, and sautéed spinach provided some semblance of healthfulness to the dish (wholly unnecessary, in my opinion!).
As a simple, comforting end to what was by now a full-on feast, we wrapped up the meal with sfogliata di pere con gelato alle nocciole; a warm, flaky puff pastry tart encased caramelized pear and toasted walnuts, and – in a respectful nod to the famed hazelnuts of Piemonte, made famous worldwide with the Chocolate Tears of the Angels, Nutella – topped with a hulking sphere of hazelnut gelato.
Stumbling out of the restaurant after the meal into the brisk Californian air, my mind wandered back to that horrific New York meal. If, I concluded, the food critics have bestowed a constellation of Michelin stars onto that wretched restaurant, and not a fine, truly authentic institution like Il Fornaio, perhaps these experts ought to re-evaluate their judging criteria.
Or, at the very least, perhaps I ought to just stay in Palo Alto for my next Thanksgiving culinary adventure.
Contact Renjie Wong at [email protected]