Thursday, November 16, 2006

Foodventure #17: Il Fornaio (Pasadena)

Yes, Il Fornaio is a chain - but I usually dig their Festa Regionale offerings which, if nothing else, is a great PR & marketing tactic. For those not familiar with Festa Regionale, it's basically a two-week long event focusing on a cuisine specific to one of Italy's regions (Lombardia, Veneto, Toscana, etc.) where they have a limited-time menu utilizing the ingredients and recipes from that region (alongside their regular yearlong menu.) I particularly like this because every month I can go in and have a whole different set of choices to choose from.

On top of that, Festa Regionale diners get a passaporto which rewards them for sampling these regional cuisine (sometimes it's a nice trinket such as wine charms, other times it could be a biscotti or a bread from their bakery.) Have a fully stamped passaporto (six months in a row) and you get a special ceramic plate & an entry for a trip to Italy. Talk about a great way to retain a loyal customer base.

And so, off I went to my local Il Fornaio - in the heart of Old Town Pasadena in the One Colorado Plaza.
Being a mildly cool day, I took a seat in their lovely patio area, which looks out into the rest of the Plaza, where an occasional short artsy flick may play on the giant screen above the Sushi Roku.

Of course, when handed the menu my eyes made a beeline for their regional specialty, this time focusing on the Northern
Aosta Valley - known for their mushrooms, truffles & fontina cheese (think Swiss but nuttier and less fat.)

Having my eye on a rather heavy looking dessert, I decided again to go for 2 lighter courses for dinner, first off:
Zuppa con Porcini e Castagne (Porcini & Chestnut Soup), topped with foccacia crouton. If there was ever a soup that was perfectly salted, this would be it, with just enough to add the needed character but not a maddeningly dehydrating bowl of liquid sodium chloride. That being said, I didn't care much for the combo in flavors -- and guess the mushroom-chestnut mix looked better in text than it does in taste. There were chunks of sweet, firm chestnuts and the soup had woodsy-earthy flavors of a porcini, but together it was just kind of unremarkable - as if the two cancelled each other out.

Moving on, I decided upon an appetizer for a main course:
Polenta Alla Boscaiola, basically polenta with chicken breasts, crimini mushrooms, a gravy & white truffle oil. The polenta had a very good texture, like moist fluffy whipped potatoes, except with corn meal. The chicken strips were juicy and soaked up the flavors of the gravy and aromatic white truffle oil really well, and the mushrooms were not bad, could've been more flavorful. But all in all a good dish that didn't fill me up, leaving me room for . . .
Tortino al Cioccolato, flourless chocolate torte on top of a thin biscotti pancake, with raspberries, chocolate syrup and cremé anglaise. So rich I'd swear it had a gravitational pull of its own, with no resistance from my spoon or willpower. Less sweet than its other flourless chocolate cousins, I can actually eat a few bites w/o thinking, "Geez I need coffee/water pronto!" However, it was a bit sticky which, combined with its density, meant I had to literally suck the thing off my dessert spoon.

And of course, I had my passaporto, which meant this time around I got a mini-loaf of their porcini ciabatta bread to take home - crusty and firm, sliced up these made for great soup dunkers!
Of course, now I can't wait to go for my sixth time, where, along with my taste of Umbria's offerings, I'll also get my commemorative plate -- to my ever growing mismatch set of chinaware--Pier 1/Ikea eccentricity without the hefty pricetag.

The bill:
Porcini/Chestnut Soup: 5.95
Polenta: 8.75
Chocolate Torte: 6.50
Coffee: 2.00
Pre-tax/tip TOTAL: 23.20

The rating:
Ambience/Decor: 4.5/5 (Great atmosphere and nice patio area)
Value: 3.5/5 (Nothing is a particular bargain, but I definitely didn't feel ripped)
Service: 9.5/10 (Exemplary, especially when the staff & manager handled a neighboring table's complaint with marvelous professionalism ~ basically he ripped his jacket on a loose nail on the wall and their first offer was to pay for tailoring fees.)
Food: 15/20 (This particular meal was good, but not a hit - but I never had anything bad here.)
Bonus/Demerit: +1 for constantly rotating menus
TOTAL: 33.5/40 (A ole reliable in my book - decent place to go to when I'm not embarking onto new foodventures.)

Other notes:
- There's a valet on Colorado Blvd. that they validate for, but I've never had trouble finding metered street parking nearby.
- On top of regional foods, they also rotate various Italian wines to go with the food (which I usually get, but opted out of this time.)
- You can also get a passaporto by going to their Web site.

Il Fornaio (Pasadena)
1 West Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena, CA


Chubbypanda said...

Granted I haven't been exposed to much in the way of chestnut products, but I never developed a liking for them. I like my chestnuts roasted, salted, and eaten while warm.

- Chubbypanda

Anonymous said...

ah, this is the exact same spot I took my first girlfriend on our first date. And, it's still one of my italian fav's. i didn't know about the festa regionale, but it's definitely gonna bring me back. thanks. surprised that the chicken was so inexpensive.

Is the dessert also part of the festa?

H. C. said...

Panda ... y'know, I am not a particular big fan of chestnuts either asides from 1) roasted form or 2) when piped in as a mousee in cakes in Chinese bakeries (my parents' favorite type of cake, btw, so I almost always get them that for their b-days.)

Henry -- the chicken polenta is actually an appetizer (but a substantial one), I had my eye on the dessert so opted for something light for regular eats--like red, white + bluezz. and yes, the chocolate cake is part of festa regionale, but much less authentically regional than their other courses.


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