With the dearth of new fine-dining restaurants opening these days, we are always looking for interesting, small neighborhood spots to review. One is Il Farro on the Balboa Peninsula, just a few steps from the pier.
Chef Domenico Maurici has been in business since 1993, serving homey Italian cuisine featuring the grain called farro.
This grain is ancient, having been discovered in the tombs of Egyptian kings. Maurici imports his from Italy, where it is organically farmed. This healthy grain is low in carbs and gluten and high in fiber.
It is sometimes confused with spelt, even in Italy, but it is a totally different grain. It can be used whole or to make pasta, bread, farro risotto or even desserts. Its pleasant nutty flavor can also be found in soups, salads and stews.
Il Farro looks like many modest Italian restaurants, with photos and paintings of scenic views providing the décor along with a wall of wine racks. It has a warm and friendly feel.
Although the menu includes regular pastas, we wanted to try the ones made from farro. While we pondered our selections, we got a plate of bread made with the eponymous grain and a dish of good olive oil accented with a bit of red pepper and lots of garlic.
The antipasto Mediterraneo can be customized if you go to the deli case in front and make your choices, or you will be brought a selection of roasted vegetables, including grilled eggplant slices, broccolini, zucchini, roasted peppers, sundried tomatoes and roasted garlic cloves, surrounding a scoop of farro grains combined with bits of tomato in a light vinaigrette. Our waiter came by to drizzle some excellent olive oil over the plate.
My guest and I shared the antipasto and the insalata di pesce Stromboli. A very large salad arrived with baby octopus and calamari, little bay shrimp, tiny bay scallops, fresh julienne vegetables, capers and black olives in a delicate lemon dressing. The octopus rings were a bit chewy, but the mixture was tasty. It could almost have been an entrée.
For my pasta course, I had the farrilli Andalusa, with spiral faro pasta mixed with roasted bell peppers, sweet onions, small chunks of chicken breast and a fresh tomato sauce, as well as a scattering of fresh basil. The pasta was perfectly al dente and had more flavor than regular pasta. The sauce and the chicken, however, were a little bland. I wanted some spice or garlic to zip it up.
Our other entrée was misto carne ai porcini. This was another huge portion that included a small, thin New York steak; a thin, grilled chicken breast; and a patty of house-made sausage. The meats were smothered in a creamy porcini mushroom sauce. On the side was a big helping of regular pasta tubes (mostaccioli?) in another very rich sauce, this time tomato cream.
The steak and chicken were overcooked, but the sausage was wonderful — salty, fatty and nicely seasoned. The pasta was delicious, but the sauce was heavy. It might have been good on its own, but with all the other richness, it was too much.
Several desserts appear on a large tray, so you can make your selections visually. They all looked house-made and included tiramisu, lemon tart, mixed nut caramel pie and biscotti. We chose the cream puffs and cheesecake.
The puffs were a little heavy but still good. The chocolate glaze on them was fine, but they were brushed with more chocolate sauce, and that spoiled the balance of flavors. The cheesecake was OK, but it really needed to be richer.
The place was packed the night we were there, and I think it has a loyal following. It's got something for everyone, from healthy dishes to sinfully rich ones.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where: 111 21st Place, Newport Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays
Appetizers: $5.99 to $12.99
Entrées: $8.99 to $26.99
Bottles: $23.99 to $69
By the glass: $6.99 to $11.99
Corkage fee: $12
Information: (949) 723-5711 or ilfarro.com