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The facci ri veccia; photography by Andrea Bricco

Franco American

by Jamie Gwen | Modern Luxury Orange County magazine | November 27, 2012

Ciao. Buona sera. Bellissima! You’ll love the welcome—the warm and endearing Italian sentiments that are so audible when you enter the hidden gem that is Il Barone. Franco, Donatella and their extended family will kiss both of your cheeks and prepare you for a feast. And get ready to indulge in what I believe is Orange County’s best authentic, white-tablecloth Italian restaurant—a place where you’re treated like famiglia and where your soul is fed, too. (It feels so good to support a privately owned and lovingly operated establishment.)

You’ll be surprised by the class and charm of this strip-center find. Newly updated booths and chairs adorn an intimate dining room of browns and creams. A new PDR (that’s restaurant speak for “private dining room”), with its wall of mirrors, will certainly capture your attention. And your nose will tingle when you catch a whiff of Franco’s lamb ragu and the lovely aroma of his fresh San Marzano tomato sauce.

Franco—a Sicilian—was born to cook. He grew up in his family’s restaurant in Italy, then worked at a score of famous kitchens before arriving here to share his own brand of Northern Italian cuisine. And my two most recent visits prove that both lunch and dinner are delights at Il Barone. At lunch, pasta-loving businessmen and women fill the room for a taste of rich bowls of raviolini a ragu di carne, made with beef, pork and veal (like all good Italian meat sauces should be created) and gnocchetti al Gorgonzola, fluffy potato dumplings in a rich, creamy cheese sauce. I mean, really, how could it be bad? The garganelle al salmone e pistacchio is a signature and not-to-be-missed dish comprised of housemade pasta ribbons bathed in a toasted pistachio cream sauce, tossed with smoked salmon and sprinkled with bright basil pesto. It’s a gorgeous one-dish lunch. (Are you drooling yet?)

And whether you go there for lunch or dinner, be sure to order the facci ri veccia. (Insert the sound of birds chirping or angels singing here.) This is another one of those culinary-dream moments: handmade focaccia dough stretched ultra-thin and filled with crescenza cheese (think rich cream cheese made better by Italians), then baked until lightly crisp underneath and oozing in the middle before it’s gently transferred from the pizza oven to a huge plate, adorned with true Parma prosciutto and drizzled with impeccable quality white truffle oil. My god, I’m starving now from the description alone. It’s divinity defined. Enough said. Just try it. (I mean get in the car now, and go there and try it.)

During my dinner visit, the restaurant is bustling with conversation. Even with a reservation, we are asked to wait “un minuto” while the table is reset. No problem—a prosecco brightened by lavender liqueur arrives in front of me at the bar to prep my palate with floral notes and lively bubbles. We are soon scooted to our corner booth (there are two in the place, and for parties of two, they are the prized cushions you want), and even before we order, I anticipate a culinary orgasm. You see, I know what comes next: A luscious spread made with anchovies, capers, garlic and fresh herbs arrives with a basket of breadsticks, and your mouth jumps with joy. The ever-changing wine list features Italian and California picks, most of which are food-friendly pairings. The service is knowledgeable and attentive, without being too much, and the “additions to the menu” are read aloud. Here’s how it works: Everything is “special,” so there are no specials. But the server will always describe Franco’s specialties of the day. An Italian bistecca, wild boar pasta with brandy-peppercorn-shallot sauce—you can’t go wrong.

For starters, I adore the torre fritta, a fried brioche bread and fresh mozzarella cheese tower topped with the chef’s amazing pomodoro sauce, bright with red and bursting with the flavor of tomatoes. I love the simple, clean salads, too—pears and Gorgonzola, with baby greens and candied walnuts. For a spectacular wine pairing, complement your first courses with a bottle of Vernaccia di San Gimignano from Castellani (2010), with its flowery bouquet and fresh finish.

Franco’s mark is embedded in many of the stock menu offerings: his signature carpaccio d’agnello, paper-thin slices of cured lamb loin finished with a grassy extra virgin olive oil, volcanic black salt and shavings of Pecorino; and his lasagna al forno, made with three cheeses. Both are truly indulgent. (But, beware, the lasagna is delectable and a bit heavy. You will need a nap after.) And be sure to order a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino, from the prestigious producer Altesino, for a hearty Italian red that has big fruit and great chew, with balanced tannins and a long, lustrous finish. (It paired well with both dishes.) On a recent dinner date, I share the bistecca alla Fiorentina, cut thin but flawlessly cooked and robust with herbaciousness. The Tuscan kale and oven-roasted potatoes are as good as the steak, and together, it feels like Italy.

Perfect for the holidays is the new private dining room, situated just behind the restaurant. A small but quaint space that can accommodate 50 of your closest guido friends (or an office party that people will still be talking about in January) is a wonderful new addition to the Il Barone family. The best part is the walk through the kitchen to get there. You’ll find Franco at the stove, pouring love into every dish.

And you cannot miss dessert. Is that clear? Do you recall the last cannoli you had in New York’s Little Italy, with the thin, crisp, freshly fried shell and the smooth, silky, sweet ricotta filling, adorned with pistachios and chocolate chips on each end? (Are you still with me?) Well, Franco’s is better. Seriously, you have to taste the cannoli. If you’re part of the family, or you make nice-nice with the chef or Donatella (or go back a few times to prove that you have very good taste), you will be treated to an aperitif glass filled with the chef’s homemade limoncello cream at the end of the meal. And ask for fior di latte gelato, made fresh and in-house when Franco feels like it. (Or when the fresh Italian butter—yes butter—that goes into the gelato arrives in his shipment.)

The Barones have managed to blend the tradition of the Old World with contemporary Italian culinary concepts. Cozy and delizioso, this unique find is a delight for the palate. Happy holidays, food lover. This is my gift—a not-so-new-but-better-than-ever Italian culinary hideout. Just don’t tell anybody, OK? I like my corner table. And you can give me a bacio for the recommendation when you stroll by my booth. Prego.

Il Barone Ristorante
4251 Martingale Way
Newport Beach

Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11am-2pm
Dinner: Mon.-Sat., 5pm till closing

Appetizers: $9-$15
Pastas: $15-$21
Meat and fish: $30-$60

Who Goes There
Italianos, Italian food lovers, pasta aficionados

You Simply Must Try
The facci ri veccia

You Simply Must Beg For
Fior di latte gelato

Best Table in the House
The corner booth

Private Party
The Barones recently expanded their space with a new and beautiful private dining room.