Il Cortile Ristorante....an Authentic Taste of Italy in Paso Robles California

The quaint city of Paso Robles, with its picturesque historic downtown and renowned wine region, delights the visitor with its share of Central Coast charm. But it also offers something very special: an authentic taste of Bella Italia at the Il Cortile Ristorante in the heart of downtown.

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While the restaurant's hip, chic décor evokes California cool more than rustic Tuscan, the spirit of Italian cuisine definitely is reflected in the innovative and extensive menu. Having traveled many times to Italy, the birthplace of our parents, my husband Tony and I pride ourselves on our knowledge of the authentic cuisine of our heritage.

Our culinary tour of the Old Country began with our “antipasti” a masterfully seasoned plate of grilled octopus in a spicy vinaigrette, followed by carpaccio di anatra, thinly slice duck blanketed with gorgonzola sauce, balsamic reduction and caramelized onions.

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Il Cortile's pastas are all home­made, which was clearly evident after our first bite of our secondi piatti, second course. Tony claimed that his selection (ravioli stuffed with lobster and served in a shrimp-­infused tomato sauce) ­­competed nicely with his Sicilian grandmother's similar family recipe. I, in turn, savored ravioli stuffed with ricotta and tossed with asparagus in a light white wine sauce. To be honest, my grandmother never came close to creating such a wonderful dish.

Magnifico.

Our main course featured the restaurant's signature osso bucco which, as it should, melted off the bone to be enjoyed in its rich sauce. Paired with 2011 Halter Ranch Syrah, it was indeed a culinary match made in heaven.

We ended the meal with Il Cortile's Panna Cotta, a light creamy dessert topped with fresh Central Coast berries. Once again,Tony declared it was every bit as delicious as his grandmother's version and as he admitted later, may have been even better!

Il Cortile offers an impressive wine list, but if you wish to bring your own special vintage, there is a $20 corkage fee with a limit of two bottles.

 So, when in Paso Robles, do as the Romans do (or visitors who love incredible Italian cuisine) and enjoy an authentic taste of Italy at the Il Cortile Ristorante in the heart of downtown.

Taste Your Good Fortune at KITCHEN 1540 in Del Mar, California

If your travels find you in the charming seaside community of Del Mar, California, some twenty miles north of downtown San Diego, celebrate your good fortune. Not only will you be afforded majestic views of the California coast and the pleasure of meandering through the quaint and picturesque town of Del Mar, you are in the perfect location to enjoy a culinary experience at KITCHEN 1540, located in the historic seaside hotel, L'Auberge Del Mar.

The brainchild behind the taste sensations on the restaurant's new menu is Chef Brandon Fortune. Classically trained at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta, Brandon's creations are modern American with a decidedly Southern influence based on his Southeastern roots.

                            ©Joanne DiBona

                           ©Joanne DiBona

KITCHEN 1540's sleek, modern décor is sophisticated and comfortable at the same time, and sets a perfect stage for a variety of innovative dishes sure to please the most discriminating palate.

So what can diners expect from Fortune's menu?

Start off your culinary adventure with a tastefully arranged platter of cold-smoked trout and organic beets. Cured steelhead saltwater trout and tender beets are embellished with a blood orange vinaigrette, black walnuts, and feathered horseradish, served with a side of chive-potato cakes.

Those who prefer a warm appetizer might elect a plate of asparagus and grilled wild ramps. Described by the chef as “spring on a plate,” this vegetarian dish features organic wild ramps and asparagus with parmesan and pecorino cheeses shaved on top. A delightful French-inspired cream sauce made with eggs and lemon and lightly toasted caraway seeds is the perfect dressing for this vegetable creation.

                    Shrimp and Grits, a Passionate Combination ©Joanne DiBona

                   Shrimp and Grits, a Passionate Combination ©Joanne DiBona

Shrimp and grits, the Chef's signature entree, elevates grits to new heights, thanks to a roasted corn and chorizo cream and succulent fresh shrimp. A topping of popcorn adds a whimsical theme to the plate. Chef Fortune admits he used this dish to woo his wife, a testimony to the old adage, “The way to the heart is through the stomach.”

Seafood specialties include the popular “still smoking scallops,” presented sizzling hot surrounded by asparagus and coriander puree, wild chanterelles, and smoked almonds powdered with lemon-thyme buds. The flaky North Pacific Halibut is served with celery root puree, mushrooms, spring carrots, and garnished with crispy fiddlehead ferns.

Chocolate lovers will delight in the malted milk chocolate mousse, one of several excellent desserts available to satisfy your sweet tooth. Roasted almonds and chocolate crunch, topped with homemade coffee ice cream, provides a decadently delicious end to a perfect meal.

For a complete menu, visit www.laubergedelmar.com. For several of my images of Kitchen 1540 and Chef Fortune's culinary masterpieces, log onto the San Diego Scenic Photos site.

Try it out if you are in Del Mar-- and raise a glass to your good fortune.

A Taste of Sicily on the Shores of San Diego

You might initially come for the spectacular view over the Bay onto San Diego’s dramatic skyline, but once you’ve visited Il Fornaio Italian Restaurant in Coronado, you’ll return for the exquisite authentic cuisine that accompanies the sweeping view.

In addition to its standard menu, Il Fornaio offers the Festa Regionale, a unique monthly culinary expedition through the various regions of Italy. As part of this culinary tour, one of the chefs--often a native of the particular region--will craft a menu spotlighting the bread, wine, and culinary specialties prevalent in the area.

Since Sicilian cuisine ranks among our family’s favorite, my husband Tony and I immediately took advantage of the opportunity to revisit the culinary delights of Sicilia without having to travel further than the shores of Coronado.

Our Sicilian food adventure began with a bowl of bruchivia, a hearty soup prepared with fava, garbanzo, pinto beans, lentils, peas and farro. The result of the pairing of these various legumes resulted in a creamy blend that easily could serve as a main course when coupled with a chunk of the restaurant’s crusty home-made artisan bread. However, we resisted the temptation of ordering a second bowl of this superb soup, since we knew a variety of tasty dishes awaited us.

We were delighted to see one of Sicily’s specialties, arancini al sugo, on the menu. These fried rice balls are filled with meat ragu, peas, hardboiled egg and caciocavallo cheese, and topped with a light tomato coulis sauce. One taste brought us back to Tony’s parents’ birthplace near Palermo, where we last enjoyed these delicacies in a little restaurant overlooking the harbor.

Although the various pastas offered as part of the first course looked tempting, we opted instead for the Risotto o Casteddu, as it is a dish we don’t often see on restaurant menus. How delighted we were with our choice, as this creamy rice dish, which featured a mixture of shrimp, crab, dill, smoked salmon oil, and parmesan cheese, was cooked to perfection!

Our main course selection was another “must have”—pisci spada, Sicily’s famous swordfish. Caught in the clear waters of the Southern Mediterranean, this meaty fish can be prepared in a variety of ways, depending on the culinary customs of the region. We’ve enjoyed it breaded or fried in butter while visiting family in Palermo.

It was a delightful surprise to sample Chef Luigi’s version, which was grilled and topped with chopped tomato, cucumber, lemon and herb sauce and served with grilled eggplant and couscous.  (Brought to Sicily from Northern Africa centuries ago, couscous is another very popular dish, especially in the southwest region of the island, and even merits its own annual Festival).

Whenever we visit Sicily, we delight in the wide variety of delicious wines produced in the sun-soaked vineyards of the central and coastal regions. The Festa Regionale features four distinctive Sicilian wines that pair perfectly with the menu options. They are available by the glass and bottle, or the diner can choose the “Sicilia Wine Flight” that offers any three half-glasses of the featured wine.

No Sicilian meal can end without Dolci (sweets). Furthermore, how could we fail to nibble on Sicily’s most famous dessert, cannoli?  Our dessert plate arrived not only with the requisite cannolis, but also profiterole (the Sicilian equivalent of a cream puff), hazelnut gelato, whipped fresh cream and chocolate sauce, and almond cookies!  A steamy expresso café capped this culinary adventure through the best of Sicily’s multi-faceted and always succulent cuisine.

In addition to the à la carte menu items, Il Fornaio also offers a three-course tasting menu for $29.99, which allows the diner to choose one item per course for their own personalized culinary adventure.

Upcoming culinary tours at Il Fornaio in Coronado will feature the culinary specialties of other regions of Italy such as Piedmonte, Emiglia-Romagna and Lombardia. For more information, log on to www.ilfornaio.com and make your plans to feast as you would in Italy right on the shores of San Diego Bay. Buon appetito! 

Il Fornaio is located at 1333 First Street in Coronado, CA 92118. For reservations, dial 1.888.ITALIAN.

Photos: © Joanne DiBona

Arnaud’s Restaurant New Orleans….where the past meets the palate for an unforgettable dining experience

When we announced to friends that we were planning a trip to New Orleans, the first words that gushed out of their mouths were: “Oh the FOOD.”

Mind you, my husband Tony and I are no strangers to fine cuisine, as we have our share of five-star restaurants in our home town of San Diego. While I was indeed interested in sampling some authentic local favorites during our visit to the Crescent City, I was also in quest of a dining experience that combined not only excellent cuisine, but also traditional jazz, history and the ambiance of yesteryear.

We found what we were looking for—and more—at Arnaud’s Restaurant, where we spent two delightful hours enjoying their celebrated Sunday Jazz Brunch. This venerable establishment, located in the heart of the French Quarter on the corner of Bourbon and Bienville Streets, was founded in 1918 by a French wine salesman, “Count” Arnaud Cazenave, though the building in which it is housed actually dates back to the 18th century.

Even if food isn’t on your mind, the main dining room at Arnaud’s is worth a visit just for a glimpse of the past; it is a scene out of a period of time when grace and hospitality defined one’s lifestyle. With its crystal chandeliers, mosaic-tiled floors, stately columns, tin ceiling and beveled glass windows, the room is grandiose without being pretentious. Yes, there are tuxedo-clad servers who attend to your every need, but the atmosphere is never stiff or overly formal. We felt immediately at ease, reveling in the sounds of a talented traditional jazz trio that made its way around the room taking requests and personally serenading the delighted diners.

I knew I was in the right place when I picked up the menu and found this statement on the cover: The Art of Cooking is an art to be proud of. It is the soul of festivity at all times and to all ages. A dinner chosen according to one's needs, tastes and moods, prepared and well served, is a joy to all senses.

Amen.

Sunday brunch at Arnaud’s consists of a four-course “prix fixe” option, with the price of the entrée the cost of the entire brunch. Our appetizers included the traditional breakfast starter, “Creole Cream Cheese Evangeline,” which consisted of fresh fruit atop a wonderfully light mixture of sour cream and crème fraiche.

It was the next appetizer, however, that opened up our palates to New Orleans cuisine. One taste of the restaurant’s signature dish, Shrimp Arnaud, convinced us that we would forever be friends of French Creole cuisine. I’ve always been a fan of sweet gulf shrimp, which I’ve enjoyed while visiting Texas and Florida, but I simply never tasted a remoulade sauce quite so divine as the one on this particular dish. I later learned that the secret recipe, developed by Count Arnaud, has been kept under lock and key over the decades, so the only place to truly enjoy the wonderfully flavorful sauce is either dining at Arnaud’s , or by procuring a bottled version on line (http://store.arnaudsstore.com/remouladesauce.html).

Our next course was a crisp salad of romaine lettuce, celeriac and pistachios, served with Arnaud’s House Dressing, which was a delightful mix of creamy Caesar and ranch dressings that complemented the greens perfectly. In between courses, we sipped excellent mimosas that cleared the palate for our entrees, while listening to our jazz trio’s mellow sounds and basking in the ambiance of old New Orleans.

It was a challenge to choose between the many inviting entrees that appeared on the menu, but we finally settled on another signature dish, Arnaud’s Crab Cakes ($39.95). Needless to say, we’ve feasted on many a crab cake in our days, and Arnaud’s presentation was right up there with the best we’ve ever tasted, enhanced by a white remoulade sauce that was again, quite spectacular (and most likely another secret recipe created by our Count!).

No brunch at Arnaud’s should end without their signature dessert, a true local favorite, Bananas Foster. This decadent concoction is made right before your eyes; if you are counting calories, turn your head away. A rich glob of butter is added to the pan, followed by bananas, cinnamon, and brown sugar, flamed tableside with banana liqueur and dark rum and served over French vanilla ice cream.

If you are going to sin in New Orleans, do it with this dessert!

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Our adventure didn’t end with dessert. After enjoying a cup of Café Brulot (flamed tableside for another dramatic touch), we were invited to tour the Mardi Gras Museum on the first floor, which is open to the public free of charge during restaurant hours, seven days a week. The museum is named for Germaine Wells, daughter of our famous Count, who reportedly reigned as queen of over twenty-two Mardi Gras balls from 1937 to 1968, more than any other woman in Carnival history.

The lavish gowns, which also include the Count’s and children’s costumes, are beautifully displayed in glass cases and feature detailed bead-work and trim. The collection is enhanced by more than 70 vintage photographs, intricate Carnival masks and faux jewels, and elaborate party invitations and favors.

Our love affair with Arnaud’s did not stop at Sunday Jazz Brunch, I might add. During our exciting week in the French Quarter, we returned to Arnaud’s historic bar, French 75. Intimate, quiet, and classy, sitting in this setting sipping a Sazerac (rye wiskey, sugar and bitters, again flamed in front of your eyes) or a deliciously potent French 75 (Courvoisier, sugar, lemon, Mumms’ Cordon Rouge) brought us back to the days of yesteryear with its intimacy and romance.

The cocktail selection was vast (and I must admit, quite intimidating for us Southern California folk with our penchant for wine and ignorance of the wide variety of historic cocktail drinks available in New Orleans). However, that didn’t stop us from enjoying the opportunity to sip our share of Arnaud’s offerings. The quote from W.C. Fields on the Arnaud’s appetizer menu put a smile on our faces as we sipped our libations: “I never drink water. I’m afraid it will become habit forming.” The Brandy Milk Punch seemed innocuous enough, but it did deliver quite a “punch,” as did a superb Bloody Mary with Creole seasoning that carried a kick thanks to the spicy hot sauce and a generous portion of vodka.

While the cocktails are exceptional at French 75, the appetizers are equally as stellar. The Souffle Potatoes ($8.95) were lighter than air and came in a generous portion complete with dipping sauce. We also enjoyed a plate of hickory-smoked fresh Gulf pompano, served on toast points accompanied with sour cream, capers and onion ($8.50). Oysters En Brochette ©Joanne DiBonaOur absolute favorites on the appetizer menu were the Brie and Jalapeno Stuffed Shrimp ($8.50) and the Oysters en Brochette ($12.25), succulent Gulf oysters wrapped with bacon and deep fried with a tangy wine sauce on the side. 

Cigars, incidentally, are welcome in French 75 and are available at the bar in their own special humidor.

Our impression of Arnaud’s—and all we experienced on our inaugural trip to New Orleans—was summed up beautifully by our charming hostess Lisa as she led us through the Mardi Gras Museum and the several private dining rooms available for intimate events in rooms that are decorated in the style of the great French chateaus.

She explained that New Orleans is the city of eternal improvisation, be it in music, cuisine, or personal style. It is this spirit that pervades this magical city and makes this destination one that will never lose its appeal to those who open their hearts and connect with its soul.

More information on Arnaud's Restaurants, Mardi Gras Museum and French 75 bar can be found at www.arnaudsrestaurant.com

All Photos © Joanne DiBona, © Tony DiBona

A Taste of Naples....On the Shores of Sarasota

You never know where you will find a true taste of Italy in your travels.

If my friend Bernadette hadn’t insisted on stopping for dinner at Café Gabbiano during a recent trip to Florida’s Gulf coast, we would have been denied an Italian culinary adventure that was one of the highlights of our visit.

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Café Gabbiano, located on Siesta Key a few blocks from the beach at Sarasota, transports you to Italy before the first mouthful of food touches your lips. Romantico is the first word that came to my mind as we entered the restaurant and admired the cozy tables that were placed haphazardly among the rows of wine racks and were nestled in the nooks and small private rooms that dotted the restaurant interior.  We passed a candle-lit outdoor patio and viewed the smiling faces of a bride and groom as they raised their glasses to their guests in a toast, a vignette that certainly added to the romantic ambiance of the evening.

We were seated at a round table tucked away in the corner, surrounded by a bay window decorated with small white lights that cast a warm and pleasant glow on our surroundings. Our attentive server was on hand immediately and dazzled us throughout the evening with his ability not only to narrate a list of special courses being offered, but also by explaining in great detail exactly how they were prepared—down to the country of origin of many of the ingredients.

My grandmother once said you can always judge an excellent restaurant by the quality of its most simple dish, and I had to think of her commentary as I sampled the first course, a bean soup. Who would have guessed that a rustic soup of cannellini beans in a garlic-laden chicken broth, topped with escarole and freshly-grated parmesan cheese, could taste so heavenly?

Indeed, this was a good sign of things to come. It was just the beginning of our culinary adventure, which went from heavenly to sublime as we journeyed through several courses. As starters, we shared an appetizer of the best plate of escargots this side of Paris; in fact, these moist and tender morsels were far superior to the gummier versions I had eaten while a student in France. Our server told us the secret to their size and tenderness was the result of their strict oatmeal diet, which gave a new meaning to “grain-fed” as it applied to these invertebrates.

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Each of us decided to sample a different main course. My selection was Gamberoni di Ischia, jumbo gulf shrimp sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and white wine, served over a bed of spinach and linguine. I especially love the sweet flavor of gulf shrimp, so whenever I visit the Southern states, I opt for this entrée. To clarify, Ischia is an island off the coast of Naples and is the home of restaurant owner Pietro Migliaccio and his extensive family, many of whom work in the restaurant. So while the shrimp hailed from the waters outside of Sarasota, it was their preparation that was definitely "Ischian" in flavor.

On the other hand, my husband Tony’s selection, a sea bass known as “Branzino,” had arrived by plane from the Mediterranean just that morning.  Presented on a large tray and filleted in front of us, this fish had a unique and delicate flavor unlike its Atlantic or Pacific cousins. Tony was delighted with his entrée.

Bernadette’s husband Mike enjoyed an immense Maine lobster on a bed of pasta, and Bernadette selected the Costolette di Vitello Luigi, the restaurant’s signature dish of a 14 ounce veal chop topped with a savory mushroom sauce.

We sipped superb dry Tuscan red wine throughout our repast, part of a private collection of labels offered by the restaurant. With a selection that includes more than 500 wines from around the world, and vintages that range from 1829 to the present, Gabbiano’s boasts one of the largest wine cellars in Florida.

When the dessert sampler arrived at our table as a final course, I was hesitant to indulge as I usually don’t like to end my meal with a sweet dessert. However, after hearing my dinner partners sing the praises of the various samples, I did reach out for a taste.

How glad I was that I did! Every item on that plate was light and not overly sweet, from the exquisite tiramisu, made the traditional way with real mascarpone cream and espresso-drenched  lady fingers to the “cannoli from heaven,” crispy home-made shells stuffed with impastata crème (which is the top, and best, layer of ricotta produced during the cheese-making process).

Add to that a Limoncello flute, a tangy lemon gelato presented in a champagne glass, and a variety of light Tartufi (chocolate covered gelato), and a truly memorable meal came to its close.

I'm really happy we listened to Bernadette!

Café Gabbiano Restaurant & Café is open seven days a week for dinner and reservations are suggested, especially during high season; www.cafegabbiano.com

ALL PHOTOS © Joanne DiBona