People I trust on the subject of Italian food kept telling me I should try Il Barone.
I went online and looked at Il Barone’s menu, but I always came away with the same conclusion. The menu looks almost identical to Olive Garden’s or Romano’s Macaroni Grill’s: fried calamari, bruschetta, Caesar salad, pasta e fagioli soup, veal Milanese, chicken Parmigiana …
What are they doing that’s interesting? Why would I want to go there? Why do people keep recommending this place?
But then I go there.
And immediately I understand why everyone keeps mentioning Il Barone.
This place is a good reminder of why the classics became classics. This is Italian American cooking at its most basic, and while the menu is practically interchangeable with those of countless chains, Il Barone actually has a soul. The cooking is solid and precise, steeped in tradition and clearly weighted with heart and experience.
Chef/owner Franco Barone was the longtime chef at Antonello’s in Costa Mesa before decamping to open his own place several years ago. His wife, Donatella, greets everyone at the door.
There is an easiness, a simplicity to dining at Il Barone that makes this place genuinely comfortable. Even on my first visit, I feel as if I’ve been here a dozen times before. The waiters treat everyone like family. When the restaurant is at its busiest, it can feel as if they need another waiter or two, or three, but everyone is charming and sincere.
I’ve not yet received a hug from either Franco or Donatella, the way so many regular customers get squeezed. But I’ve dined here only four times, and I suspect that if I were to come once more, I might be greeted with a big, sloppy, heartfelt bear hug like all the others.
On each of my visits, a good portion of the diners are chattering away in Italian. It’s almost like being on vacation. I find myself wanting to order a double espresso in my limited Italian.
Part of what makes this place so fun is its size. Il Barone barely accommodates 50 people, squeezed together like Italian sardines. But even as I’m dining elbow to elbow, the restaurant retains a remarkable sense of privacy at every table. Plush carpet and long tablecloths help keep the din to a peaceful hum.
If you listen closely, you can detect Italian pop music playing softly in the background. Background music as merely background music: what a novel idea. One day at lunch, I try to eavesdrop on a handsome monsignor dressed in a perfectly tailored white cassock as he enjoys a two-hour lunch with a patron who is raptly bending his ear. They both look so important, and their whispered conversation appears riveting. I can almost hear a pin drop, yet I can’t discern a single word.
But I can see what they’re eating, and it looks so delicious that I order the same. It’s a special of the day, an Italian meatloaf. “We don’t serve this very often,” my waiter tells me. “Today is a lucky day.” The meatloaf is indeed delicious – and beautiful, with an egg baked into its top. Heads turn every time this dish lands on a table.
I’ve enjoyed just about everything that I’ve tried here. My least favorite thing is probably the pizza, but that’s not to say I don’t like it. It’s simply a very decent pizza. This isn’t a pizza joint, and one gets the feeling the kitchen doesn’t really want to focus on that. They offer only two choices, Margherita or prosciutto, either of which serves its purpose well. I would actually order the Margherita again simply because it feels like something I’m supposed to do when I’m in a classic Italian American restaurant like this.
What I like even better, though, is the facci ri veccia, which is almost like a pizza. It is a round, cracker-like focaccia with soft, creamy crescenza cheese and fine prosciutto. A glass of wine, a slice of this … life is good.
I would order the Caesar salad again, too. It’s one of the better Caesars I’ve eaten lately, which makes me happy because I’ve encountered so many truly sad salads recently masquerading as Caesars. But this one actually tastes of egg and garlic the way it should.
An appetizer of nicely charred octopus and beans is very nice. And the panko-crusted burratta is excellent. The gooey-soft cheese retains its ooziness even when fried, which speaks volumes about the quality.
The menu offers a long roster of pastas, all of which you will have seen somewhere else before. The spaghetti carbonara is exactly what you might hope for: rich and creamy with egg, Parmesan and pork fat. There’s a wonderful rigatoni tossed with crumbled pork sausage, finely chopped kale and tomatoes.
I had seen a picture of fettuccine with mushrooms on the restaurant’s website, and it looked beautiful, so I return to order it. Unfortunately, the dish I’m served looks nothing like the lovely, fluffy dish in the photo. But the taste is nice, seasoned with tons of garlic and good olive oil. And of course there is linguine with clams. They offer the dish two ways: with red sauce or white. Both are very good.
The pastas are intended as main courses, not small middle plates, even though they’re listed on the menu as “primi,” which in Italy would be a small middle course. On my first visit, when I ask my non-Italian waiter if the pastas are sized to be pasta courses or full-size mains, he looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. “They’re big,” he says, smiling. “They’re typical, meant to be entrees.” But the staff will split any of the pastas if you wish to share one before moving on to the veal.
And I do recommend moving on to the veal. The Milanese is excellent, thinly pounded and breaded and lightly pan-fried. On a couple of my visits the chef also offers a hefty pan-roasted veal chop that’s about an inch-and-a-half thick and as tender as butter.
The desserts are OK. They serve a limoncello tiramisu that has a lovely story behind it, something about Franco making it for Donatella’s birthday, and then she insisting that he put it on the menu. It’s made with white chocolate and very subtle lemony mascarpone. It’s fine, but not better than the tried-and-true classic involving dark cocoa powder and espresso – perhaps the most classic of all classics.
On one of my visits, it’s another lucky day. The kitchen has made a fresh batch of spumoni, that Italian ice cream that Americans like to call Neapolitan. It’s so simple: layers of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate. Why even look at anything else? I’ll have it with an espresso, please.
Or, rather, make it un doppio. Per favore.
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
Where: 4251 Martingale Way, Newport Beach
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; Dinner, 5-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Don’t miss: Facci ri veccia, octopus and beans, spaghetti carbonara, veal Milanese, spumoni, espresso.
Best place to sit: Near a window at lunch. Corner banquette at night.
About the noise: Pleasant, even when the place is packed.
County health inspection:Good; only a few minor dings on latest report.
Cost: Lunch: appetizers, $7-$16; pastas and entrees, $18-$23. Dinner: appetizers, $9-$20; entrees, $19-$27; desserts, $7-$8; corkage, $25.
What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. You can check out more of my work for the Register here. Meanwhile, I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.