Restaurant Review - Well bread

A glorified Italian bakery, Il Fornaio shines in office park setting

With a year and a pair of busy holiday seasons under its belt, Il Fornaio is fit, finely honed and turning out pane, pasta and pollo by the yard. The setting — a clean, handsome series of rooms overlooking a small lake — is as welcoming as any in the Perimeter area. Service at the Italian-style dinner house is top-notch.
The ciao chow, if not perfect in every detail, is much better than the denizens of the surrounding office parks might expect. Like its nearest neighbors, P.F. Chang's China Bistro and McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant, Il Fornaio ("the baker" in Italian) is a costly attempt to build a national chain around an ethnic-American niche. Like those aggressively marketed local links, the Dunwoody Il Fornaio is positioned as an initial thrust into the rich Atlanta market.
According to a company brochure, Il Fornaio began as a baking school outside Milan in 1972. Today it has more than 2,500 locations in Italy. The company came to the U.S. in 1981, setting up headquarters in Corte Madera, Calif., just north of San Francisco. About two dozen units, the majority in California, operate in the Western United States. The Ashwood franchise is the only unit east of Colorado.
It's easy to credit the company's bakery background after one taste of the crusty, nutty walnut rolls that arrive early in the meal. Ciabatta and bread sticks in the basket are almost as good. Breads are served with highly aromatic olive oil for dunking. Unfortunately, the company demands that servers cut the oil with ordinary-tasting balsamic vinegar. You'll do well to resist their efforts. The bread served with both my meals did not benefit from the vinegar spritz.
Breads as well as sandwiches, pastries, coffee and carryout dishes can also be bought at a counter at the front of the restaurant. The panetteria opens at 7 a.m. The restaurant itself serves lunch and dinner daily, with service continuing in between.
Unusual pastas — essentially bread with attitude — form the backbone of Il Fornaio's menus. Although each of the three I tried can be faulted in minor ways, none was boring or seemed factory-made. Lasagna Ferrarese — bands of spinach pasta layered with bechamella sauce and topped with meat ragu and Parmesan cheese — tasted authentically Italian if slightly floury. The casserole is baked to order and arrives bubbling hot. When the server offers to grind more cheese over the top, say yes ($11.95).
Cappellacci di zucca — fist-size tortellini filled with a sweet paste of butternut squash and walnuts and topped with a deliciously smoky tomato sauce and sage leaves — floated atop way, way too much brown butter. Those with a sweet tooth will probably like this one best. For the rest of us, it might be better split as a pasta course ($12.95). Ravioli di verdura — a pasta packet with less oil and sugar — involves a filling of Swiss chard, pine nuts, basil and cheese and a properly modest topping of artichoke hearts and tomatoes in a white wine reduction. The plate on which it was served arrived hotter than the lukewarm pasta. Even as a New Year's resolution, this Italian vegetable plate struck us as too much like dinner at a very strict spa ($13.50).
Spinach salad with a warm vinaigrette, in which pieces of applewood smoked bacon, sliced mushrooms, toasted walnuts and red onions are tossed, is topped with shaved aged ricotta. The conception is traditional, very successful, large enough to share and just a bit pricey at $7.50. The green salad — balsamic vinaigrette and a nice mix of wild-style baby greens — is simpler ($4.95).
Seafood dishes scored one-one. Salmon Irlandese, a lunch special, involves mesquite-grilled fish glazed with herbs, lemon and oil, delectable roasted potatoes and a toss of quickly cooked rapini, yellow squash and baby carrots. The fresh salmon was heavily caramelized, almost charred on the outside, yet creamy rare within ($15.95). Flour-coated fried squid with marinara were merely OK, though — a disappointment considering how delicious these babies can be at comparable Italian independents ($8.50).
Bread pudding with golden raisins and creme anglaise, briefly heated in the oven before serving, is light as a tossed stuffing, not remotely pudding-like. Given the pittance it must cost to produce, the dessert's $5.95 price makes no sense. Watch your wallet on sodas, too. Il Fornaio charges 50 cents to refill a $1.95 Coca-Cola of no more than middling size. In the city where Cokes function as the latter-day holy water, this seems a cheap, grasping trick. At least the server did say, "Would you like to order another refill?"
Overhead is no doubt high. Lofty ceilings (with sound-deadening tiles), white stucco-like walls, wood floors, wide windows, white linens on padded tabletops, Italian beers and wines, a full bar and an exhibition kitchen, a brick rotisserie and the wood-fired oven, and rows of modern Italian-style light fixtures produce an enchanting candlelight effect, especially at dusk: It's all charming, quiet and very Italian in feel.
Next time I go back — and I will — I want to try lamb shank, rotisserie chicken scented with rosemary and a Gorgonzola pizza with bacon, red onions, pine nuts and cheese. And more of those walnut rolls with olive oil. Heck, I could make a meal of those rolls alone.