Il Grillo could almost pass as someone’s home. It’s a small restaurant – only six or seven tables – but that’s not exactly why it feels so intimate.
Rather, it’s the cozy groups, smiling faces, chatter and laughter dimmed alongside casual background music. When you don’t see sommelier Jay Madrid walking around pouring wine, you can see him behind the deli bar topped with endless cookie jars. It’s a happy and comfortable space, and the warmth extends all the way from the atmosphere to the menu.
It’s a simple list, and it rotates depending on what’s available. New Executive Chef Brandon Miller brings expertise in Italian (and French) cooking and Venetian style tapas (cicheti), and it shows through the lively menu of small plates, homemade pastas and interesting entrees.
Wild boar sugo anyone? It’s served tenderly with Miller’s in-house strozzapreti (pasta ropes), firm with just the right amount of chewiness. How about a Caesar salad? Except instead of lettuce, your teeth sink effortlessly into thick, savory Brussels sprouts, elegantly thin parmesan shreds and a few indulgent anchovies.
Smaller plates, like the granchio (crab), are even more creative. Dungeness crab sits atop a small castle of artichoke hearts, an interesting mix with light caviar aioli, juicy clementine wedges and a lick of chili oil spice.
The prosciutto sounds standard enough, but with ripe plum slices, floral olive oil and saba – a reduced grape must – drizzled on top, the meat plate could make a meal in itself, especially with a side of various homemade breads. My vote is for the soft, classic ciabatta, but the flatbread with potato and dill or the carrot-currant-walnut loaf were top contenders.
Speaking of bread, one of the most delectable bites came unexpectedly from croutons. Thick, rugged chunks of ciabatta soaked up all the flavors of the salad they came on: mustardy arugula, tomatoes caramelized in malt vinegar, sugary golden raisins. As compelling as it all was, the greens were only an accompaniment to fragrant, peppery roasted chicken cooked under a hot brick. The poultry highlighted the night with its supple meat and crispy skin, especially next to the very complementary side, and a half a giant, yellow lemon. Not only did it taste impressive, it looked beautiful too.
With all the humble decadence of every dish, the food seems almost quiet in the bustling, cheerful dining room. Wine and dessert sitting on the shelf softly beckons with more luxury, like a confection – say for example, Pastry Chef Emily Garcia’s subtly nutty Vin Santo cake served with pine nut brittle. Or go for one of her many jarred treats, like “tatu,” fondly labeled “chocolate balls.” These Sicilian cookies look exactly how you think they would (small and dark), but they bring some surprising spices, like suitably Christmassy star anise.
It’s the kind of dessert that makes you want to linger (or buy a bag of cookies, which you can). Long after a suggested closing hour of 9pm, guests slowly shuffle out, but it seems less like leaving a restaurant, and more like going from one home to the next.
IL GRILLO Mission between Fourth and Fifth, Carmel. Mon-Sat 5-9pm. 238-9608, ilgrillocarmel.com