La Gondola Ristorante
Thursday, July 30, 1998
Corks were popping and heads were turning at the flashy grand opening last month of La Gondola Ristorante, located in the romantically refurbished site of the former Bradley's Tavern and Grill. With a guest list that evidenced a veritable who's who of the hospitality industry, the lively group of invitees overflowed the elegantly redecorated interior and spilled out onto the patio, eager to toast the management team that breathes new life into this corner of the Barnyard.
This setting isn't the first time that Francesco Solda and Fabio Fornaro have worked together. They first met in Santa Barbara back in the '80s at Pane e Vino, where Solda was operating the kitchen and Fornaro was managing the front of the house. A solid friendship was struck, with conversations frequently running to a shared goal of owning their own place. Even after Solda's career took him to San Francisco's Prego before bringing him to Il Fornaio in Carmel, the friendship stuck. And so did the dream.
"I knew about this place when it came on the market," says Solda, "and I immediately thought, 'Okay, now's the time. I called Fabio and we went for it." The pair also called another friend--someone "Beverly Hills 90210" fans may be thrilled to see when he visits his new restaurant. Actor Jason Priestley, a long-time fan of Solda's finesse with food, might be found mixing martinis or firing an occasional order when he comes to town.
Happy to be running his own kitchen, Solda's menu strongly reflects his Venetian roots and the cuisine he fondly remembers as a child in his grandmother's kitchen, where she was the chef at a popular restaurant on the seacoast of the Mediterranean. "I grew up in the restaurant, watching her cook. Later I went to work in a butcher shop and I would have to take meat deliveries to the big hotels, and I'd get in trouble because I would stay too long, watching the chefs, talking to them and seeing how they did things," he recalls. "I knew when I was very young that I wanted to be a chef."
Solda calls his menu "Authentic Italian, but updated. The food from Northern Italy can be a little heavy," he explains. "I lighten it up. And I like lots of tastes on the plate, so I don't get bored." He cites the tagliata con rucola as an example: He grills the organically grown New York steak and serves it in its natural juices over baby arugula, with rosemary marble potatoes and sweet baby onions, roasted in balsamic vinegar. "The bitterness of the arugula, the sweetness of the onions, the rosemary," he enthuses. "It all works together on the plate with the beef to make a wonderful eating experience."
Another popular item is the grilled monkfish, a fish that's much enjoyed in Italy for its white, firm-but-tender texture that works perfectly on the grill. Solda teams it with sauteed radicchio, baby white asparagus, sweet yellow corn and cherry tomatoes over greens. Striped bass and turbot appearing on the menu--and sometimes pike, roasted in the wood-fired oven and served whole--also testify to Solda's fondness for other out-of-the-ordinary seafood.
The exhibition oven also pumps out an interesting selection of pizzas for the lunch crowd (The Gondola, with clams, mussels, scallops and mozzarella) as well as Panini (filet mignon with grilled eggplant). La Gondola also has great deals on tap beers, Italian wines and special appetizers during the Wednesday through Friday happy hours, and seven days a week, late-night noshers can get a bellyfull all the way until midnight. cw