Flavor Enhancers Needed
Bland food doesn't live up to the stellar service at a new Reston eatery
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Dec. 9, 2007
The most gratifying aspect of Il Fornaio surfaces on the telephone, reappears at the host stand and continues at the table: noteworthy service. More so than a lot of restaurants, the first East Coast branch of a popular California-based Italian chain bonds immediately and repeatedly with its customers.
When a pal and I pop in one Thursday night without reservations, we fall in line behind four couples who also want to have dinner here. Each of us is told the wait will be 30 minutes or so. But the difference between the way the greeters at Il Fornaio deliver the news and the manner in which those at so many other restaurants let diners know they're jampacked is the difference between honey and vinegar. The staff at Il Fornaio forgoes any attitude, looks you in the eye, offers sympathetic smiles and, if you're willing to stick around, tries really, really hard to make you glad you did. I know this from experience, having waited with my friend in the outer fringes of the bar, where we were wedged in like Metro riders on a short train at rush hour. Nevertheless, our hostess with the mostess braved the masses to check up on us. (For the launch of this location, its 21st restaurant, Il Fornaio sent 10 of its top bartenders, busers, hosts and servers from California to train the staff in Virginia. The company's effort paid off.) "We bake our own bread," a waitress says as she picks up where the hostess leaves off. (Il Fornaio is Italian for "The Baker.") As for the pasta, "we make the ravioli and fettuccine fresh each day." She may have uttered those selling points a thousand times before, but she shows no signs of operating on autopilot. The server has lots of company. All around me, managers and busboys and waiters are working in unison to make you feel pampered, a scene that is played out at lunch as well as at dinner every day of the week.
So, why am I so disappointed when my meal shows up? Because the kitchen doesn't seem to be following the same recipe for success. If you like big portions of pretty food, Il Fornaio delivers. But if you're here to relive that ristorante experience you had in Rome or Florence or Milan, you're out of luck. Much of the cooking here roots you, deeply and unfortunately, in Reston. Nothing's bad, but little suggests it's coming from the heart rather than from a corporate entity, either. (By my third meal here, I'm encouraging my dining companions to eat as much bread as they like, because Il Fornaio's bread, crusty and warm, is one of the kitchen's assets.)
You'll want to nod "yes" when your server asks if you'd like Parmesan grated over your minestrone. You'll need the cheese to impart a soupcon of seasoning to the vague broth, which brims with carrots, cabbage and bits of tomato but still manages to taste like it was served on doctor's orders. An appetizer of calamari demonstrates that the kitchen knows how to dredge and fry; skip the "spicy" marinara sauce, however, which registers tomatoes but not much else. A slender plate of grilled scallops, shrimp and more is no more than pleasant, held back by a wan parsley sauce.
The entrees also suggest that flavor enhancers are being rationed by the kitchen. Rotisserie chicken turns out to be a big tease. While a rosemary sprig waves from its surface, not even Sherlock Holmes could find evidence of the herb by eating the poultry itself, which shows up with pared carrots, tepid mashed potatoes and -- asparagus in late fall? If nothing else, an Italian kitchen should cook to the tune of the season. Veal scaloppine needs more lemon, but the thin sheets of pounded veal get a nice assist from their wrinkled roasted potatoes.
Il Fornaio's pastas yield a mixed bag. Among the better specials have been light gnocchi draped with a cream sauce speckled with Italian ham and woodsy with porcini mushrooms and a whisper of truffle oil. Spinach ravioli inflated with spicy ground sausage and cloaked with a zippy tomato sauce comes out punching with garlic and sass. But the kitchen is also capable of turning out thick, heavy ravioli stuffed with thick, heavy butternut squash, as well as little canoe-shaped squiggles of pasta with a sauce of tomatoes, olives, onions and capers that can't conceal the reality that the noodles are cooked to near mush.
Pizza is a more satisfying strategy. Char spots here and there on the thin crust signal a proper fire, and the toppings are scattered in just the right amount, so they don't outmuscle the flavor of the base. Pizza Cristina makes a good shared appetizer, dressed as it is with a little meat (prosciutto), a little green (arugula) and two cheeses (mozzarella and Parmesan). Waiters slice the pie in front of customers and place it on a raised stand, details that extend the hospitality and make more room on the table.
The mostly Italian wine list is no bargain; some wines by the glass sell for at least five times their wholesale price. Yet there are some interesting choices from reputable sources by the bottle -- look for falanghina and greco di tufo among the white wines, nero d'avola and barbera (from Michele Chiarlo) among the reds -- and it's smart of the newcomer to acknowledge Virginia with a pinot grigio from Barboursville.
A rolling dessert cart adds a formal and American touch to Il Fornaio. Which means the selections -- including apple-filled crepes with gelato and caramel sauce, and a two-tone custard the size of a baby's head -- run big and sweet. Berries draped in a cold zabaglione is comparatively light, though the dessert is outfitted with sorbet, whipped cream and thin cookies that edge close to overkill.Despite a noise level that can approach that of a racetrack, the airy dining room is an appealing place to settle in for an hour or two. The mellow lighting flatters tired faces, voyeurs will appreciate the half-walls with windows separating the tables, and an exhibition kitchen lets diners in on some fun, including the skill of the expert pizza tosser. No design detail appears to have been overlooked: Some of the best-dressed people in the place are the busboys in their sharp red jackets.
Il Fornaio is clearly dedicated to making its many customers feel wanted and comfortable. But good service and a handsome setting aren't enough to attract patrons looking for discernment on the plate.