My mother-in-law was coming to town for one night. She hadn't visited for seven years. Her imminent arrival wasn't a bad thing -- I like my mother-in-law. But it made me stop and think. Where could I take her for dinner that would be special and extraordinary? What restaurant embodies the essence of San Diego?
Our city is fortunate to enjoy a wide range of cuisine choices. American, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai and seafood are only a few of the many labels we attach. Sadly (or, perhaps not), there is no "San Diego" style of cooking, no "La Mesa" deli or "Chula Vista" barbecue. I realized that what really makes San Diego special, regardless of cuisine, is the proximity to the ocean and glorious views. That is, so long as the food is good.
So, I opted for Italian cuisine (her favorite) at one of my favorite view settings -- Il Fornaio in Coronado. There are actually two Il Fornaio locations, one in Coronado and one in Del Mar. Both offer exciting views. But I wanted my mother-in-law to experience the beautiful and ever-changing skyline of downtown, with its tall buildings and twinkling lights.
"What a large parking lot and what a large restaurant," she exclaimed as we drove up. The long building fronts the sandy beach, with downtown across the bay. The dramatic Coronado Bay Bridge curves off into the evening sky.
Large wooden doors, like those one may find on some ancient castle, open to the interior. The bar area extends on one side, across from the retail counter where breads and other baked goods are sold. Patios surround the building, on which diners can enjoy warm days and balmy evenings. The lights of the distant buildings can be seen through the glass windows.
Il Fornaio means "the baker." True to its name, there is a bakery on the premises that prepares outstanding breads and pastries. The bakery opens 8 a.m. to serve coffee and baked goods, even though the restaurant does not open for lunch until later in the morning. The bread that was brought to our table was excellent, with its soft interior and hard, tasty crust. We could have made a meal of pane' e olio' (bread and mild virgin olive oil).
Il Fornaio has an ongoing "special menu" program for two weeks each month. During that period, all the chain's locations offer a special menu in addition to the regular one that features recipes from a designated region of Italy. A different chef prepares all the recipes, which are authentic because the chef himself comes from that region.
The designated region for February (Feb.5 to Feb.18) is Molise, along the central eastern coast of the country by the Adriatic Sea. The menu, by Chef-Partner Guiseppe Naccarelli, focuses on the natural ingredients of the region -- mushrooms, meats, seafood and cheeses. Fungo Ripieno, for example, uses Portobello mushroom as a bed for smaller button mushrooms and smoked mozzarella. Costicine d'Agnello offers strong flavors in the rack of lamb drizzled with thyme. Delightful regional wines are recommended to accompany the distinct dishes.
The regular menu, with appetizers, pasta and entrees, has a plentitude of dishes to delight. Giorgio Tegami and Marco Nocco are genial hosts who make diners feel welcome and comfortable.
My mother-in-law ordered the lasagna. "True Italian flavor," she said, digging in. My selection, Pollo Toscano, was a tasty half-chicken off the rotisserie. Even the Vegetarian Pizza was a hit.
"Leave room for the desserts," host Nocco said. He was right. The choices of tiramisu, crème brûlée, bread pudding and more was as good tasting as they were good looking. After all, there is a baker in the house.
Torta d'Riccota, on the special menu, is an amazing and flavorful traditional ricotta cheesecake in a pastry crust flavored with candied orange peel, dark chocolate and saffron -- served with crème anglaise and chocolate sauce. What a sensation!
What did my mother-in-law think?
"I can't wait to come back," she assured me.
Il Fornaio in Coronado is a terrific place for everyday dining and exceptional for showing visitors what San Diego is all about. Prices are moderate and service is superb. Il Fornaio is located at 1333 First St. in Coronado, near the Coronado Ferry Plaza. Call (619) 437-4911 for information and reservations.
Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to the firstname.lastname@example.org. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.