It happened quicker and quieter than a bloodless coup. Even some regulars of The Pleasant Peasant didn’t know their airport-area mainstay had closed until Il Barone Ristorante opened in its place in January. After just months, and with little advance buzz, Il Barone bustles with sophisticated diners eager to sample O.C.’s hottest husband-and-wife act by Franco and Donatella Barone. Considering his 17 years as executive chef at Antonello and her 15 years as general manager of nearby Nello Cucina, it was practically a culinary imperative that these two would bring Il Barone Ristorante into the world.
But don’t expect a replay of either operation; Il Barone is very much an original, solidly Italian in spirit, cuisine, and setting, in ways that feel thoughtful and imaginative. A stylish remodel with contemporary finesse owes little to the Old World. The generous menu of traditional southern Italian dishes is often tweaked with rich northern Italian flavors. The combination blends comforting familiarity with a sharp edge of newness—even boldness—that’s sure to thrill the timid and excite the daring. The food also is marvelously executed.
I can’t help but see two paths on the menu: safe and adventurous. For antipasti, the safe choice is a pizza-like Facci ri Veccia, paper-thin leaves of focaccia layered with mozzarella, baked to a gentle crisp and topped with Parma prosciutto. Or, barely breaded pads of fresh mozzarella, fried to
a golden crunch, resting on a judicious splash of sprightly fresh tomato sauce. Both dishes ooze light milky cheese, the first balanced well with the salt in the prosciutto, the second by the acid from the sauce. The waiter warns that the carpaccio of wild boar has an earthy flavor some find too strong, but I like how the smoky, peppered curing lends an appealing pungency to the dark slices of pork, drizzled with truffle olive oil. All three dishes excel.
Choices are limited in the soup-salad category. Salads are more numerous at lunch, when the room buzzes with the local office crowd. Of the lunch-only salads, my vote goes to the roasted beets with burrata cheese—amped up with roasted tomatoes and fine, aged balsamic vinegar, all in mindful proportion. It’s hearty but not heavy, and healthy, too. Bean soup, a special one day, is a princely masterpiece of a pauper’s dish—various legumes, carefully simmered to peak tenderness in a bright broth perfumed with garlic and oregano.
Meals open with long stalks of grissini, bread sticks hand-rolled by Mama Giovanna, Donatella’s mother. A small pot of pale-green bagnetto accompanies for dipping; it’s a silky mousse of parsley, anchovies, garlic, vinegar-soaked bread crumbs, and olive oil. It’s only the start of homemade delights here. Several pastas are fresh, from the trofie (twills) to lasagna (sheets) to capellini (angel hair), many made on site. Pasta offerings can be wonderful because the preparations are exciting medleys with vivid sauces that complement, not dominate. They also change frequently. Twills with a delicate rabbit ragu, my early favorite, already has been switched to lamb ragu—a meat with more mass appeal. Cavatelli with guanaciale—curled pasta pillows with cured pork jowl and hot peppers from Italy’s Calabria region—is spicy and brawny, with a nice chew. Lasagna with layers of prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and béchamel sauce infused with truffle is wickedly rich, tempered only by the pasta’s weightless delicacy.
Main courses are mostly beef, veal, and chicken, plus specials that always include seafood. From the menu, the veal Milanese is that ideal rendition—tender, flavorful cutlet encased in seasoned bread crumbs given a proper crunch from deft pan sautéing. A simple squeeze of lemon ties it together perfectly. Cubes of top-notch beef tenderloin deliver savory satisfaction minus heaviness since they’re pan-seared with arugula and bright teardrop tomatoes. Two specials are outstanding: a baked branzino that doesn’t descend into mushiness like many others, and linguine with mixed seafood starring loads of fin and shellfish in a graceful tomato coulis. Excellent short ribs braised in amarone, another special, were expertly simmered, but trounced by a too-sweet reduction the waiter said was made with honey. Sampled again as leftovers the next day, sans sauce, the beef was quite enjoyable.
The desserts are an embarrassment of riches. They, too, are made in-house, some by the Barones’ 19-year-old son, Jonathan, using Franco’s recipes. The menu offers almost a dozen, plus a special or two, and I have yet to experience a dud. If the lineup is too daunting, I suggest starting with the refined limoncello tiramisu that handily trumps the many espresso-chocolate versions. Or, go old school with fragile cannoli filled with sweet ricotta and petite chocolate chips. The golden pastry shells shatter on contact with your fork.
Service here is warm and accommodating. Donatella is a blur of motion, seeing to everyone’s comfort in two languages. No wonder Italian clubs and organizations already are booking large groups for feasts. Plus, it’s a tasteful, welcoming space with good acoustics and appealing touches that include pendant lighting, a candle wall, and large, modern paintings. It feels urbane, unfussy. Kudos to designer Giancarlo Giacchi, chef Franco’s cousin.
From the cheerful “Buena sera” welcome to the perfectly pulled espresso finale, it’s clear the Barone family operates with an élan and passion often missing in even the most veteran enterprises. It has the style, cuisine, and presence of a dining room far more mature than its rookie status might suggest. Before it celebrates its first birthday, Il Barone will be an old favorite for many discriminating diners.
Daily soups, fried fresh mozzarella, wild boar carpaccio, roasted beet and tomato salad (lunch only), pastas, baked branzino, limoncello tiramisu, cannoli Siciliani, torta di mascarpone.
Starters, $6 to 14; pastas, $13 to $20; entrées, $18 to $21; desserts, $7.
Banquettes in the main room, or Tables 22 and 26 in the elevated section.
Lunch, Monday through Friday; dinner, Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
The modest list is still growing, but corkage is free Monday through Wednesday; $15 Thursday through Saturday.
4251 Martingale Way
Published August 2010
Gretchen Kurz is an Orange Coast contributing editor and the local editor of Orange County’s Zagat Survey / Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi.