Just steps from the soft sand of Santa Monica’s famed beaches, this outpost of Italian über-chain Il Fornaio serves up gourmet Italian fare and good vibes. After a hard day of wandering down Third Street Promenade or riding the Santa Monic Pier’s venerable Ferris wheel, this warm and cozy beachside restaurant could be just what the doctor ordered. Offering a menu that includes true Italian classics like pizzas, pastas and osso buco, Il Fornaio will satisfy your hunger for all things marinara and beyond.

Amidst on-again, off-again downpours, I recently stopped in with a friend on a Friday night to sate our grumbling bellies with something warm and comforting. Parking was a breeze, available either by the restaurant’s own valet or in one of the adjacent public city lots. As the raindrops splashed down on the awning above, the gracious maitre d’ showed us to a comfy corner booth and left us to browse the ample menu selections including a menu della cena, which changes weekly.

Inspired by all the liquid falling from the sky, we decide to start with drinks. I ordered a Peroni, Italy’s answer to Budweiser, but far more delicious, and my chum selected a shiraz-cabernet blend. The gregarious waitress Lisa returned quickly with our selections, while a co-worker placed an overflowing basket of multiple varieties of starchy confections on the table next to a dish of oil. I enjoyed the chunks of crusty Italian bread, but the crunchy breadsticks flecked with sesame seeds were quite tasty too.

While sipping our beverages and nibbling on bread, we decided to start with a plate of Carpaccio, a tasty appetizer of thinly sliced beef drizzled with lemon-olive oil and complemented with flakes of parmesan cheese ($8.95). The meat was savory and rich, while the cheese was just zippy enough to meld the dish into a perfect taste-apalooza.

With our taste buds now piqued, we moved on to the main course. My pal decided to keep it simple with the eponymous Insalata del Fornaio ($6.95) and a Pizza Margherita ($19.95). I opted to get a little more crazy and requested the Turtei con Aragosta – lobster stuffed ravioli with shrimp in a creamy pink sauce – and a soup, their highly-recommended Minestre di Farro e Bolotti ($17.95). When the soup and salad arrived, we were ready, with forks and spooned poised for action.

The salad was basic but tasty, with mixed greens and croutons drizzled with their special vinaigrette dressing, the end result being not unlike a well-prepared Caesar salad. The soup was a medley of flavors – thick and hearty, teeming with bean-y goodness. But enough with the foreplay, it was time to get to the main event.

The Turtei con Aragosta arrived and beautiful she was, a steaming plate of absolute tummy-tickling goodness. Thick chunks of lobster were stuffed inside delicately frilled ravioli noodles floating in a cream and tomato sauce and dappled with briny shrimps. It tasted of the nearby sea (without the pollution) and was the perfect, soul-warming dish for a frosty February night.

The Pizza Margherita was also a hit, with its thin crust, tangy sauce and gooey mozzarella cheese. It was topped with basil and oregano, and cooked just enough to give the crust a satisfying crunch.

At this point, lesser souls would have thrown in the towel, stuffed to the gills with so much food that declining to order dessert should have been a foregone conclusion. But not us – we soldiered on, ordering the Crespelle con Vaniglia, a decadent concoction of crepes with apple and grappa cream innards, doused with caramel sauce and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($6.95). It was delicious, and then some, so rich and sweet that we finally declared defeat over the capacity of our bellies.

We bid farewell to our gracious hosts and ambled back out onto Ocean Avenue, the lights of the pier guiding our bulging bellies homeward.

Il Fornaio in Santa Monica is open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; and Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Other nearby locations include Beverly Hills, Pasadena, and Manhattan Beach. For more information, visit

Article posted on 3/1/2005
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