Big City By-The- Sea
Thursday, September 3, 1998
If you''ve been in the area for a while, you might remember the restaurant that used to be at the Pine Inn in Carmel. A few years ago, it was quite a different place, charming in its own way, probably remembered more for its gazebo than anything else. Since then, the gazebo has become the bakery at Il Fornaio, a delightful place to indulge in an espresso and a newspaper. It''s the kind of place that''s fun to go to all by yourself, just so you can eavesdrop on all the different accents visiting Ocean Avenue from all over the world. You can almost trick yourself into thinking you''re someplace else. A Big City.
That''s kind of the way it is with Il Fornaio. In the evening, especially, going out to eat there feels like going out on the town: You know that on this night, you will Dine. The wait staff is elegant in their starched white jackets, measuredly attentive under the vigilant eye of Giorgio, your host. The guys behind the line don''t seem to notice if you''re watching all their moves as they toss and stir and douse and carve, playing their own intricate parts on either side of the chef, as he conducts the score. The crescendo builds as each plate makes its way to the center where he scrutinizes everything before it departs to its final destination, swept away in a well-orchestrated swirl.
It''s kind of amazing how quickly Il Fornaio blended into the local culinary landscape. It seemed overnight that the place filled up with wonderful aromas, noise and laughter, the things that should accompany good food, and about as close as you''re going to get to a real Italian trattoria without a visa. Part of the reason for the quick rise to celebrity is no doubt David Beckwith, long established locally as both a fine chef and committed community activist.
Il Fornaio''s success might make it look easy. But, if you''ve ever spent any time in the restaurant business, you know better. A couple of years ago I met Maurizio Mazzon, then the executive chef. I''ve never forgotten the exquisite seabass I feasted on at that particular event-and it''s closely rivaled by the striped bass on Il Fornaio''s new menu. Done in a salt crust that gently steams the whole fish, it is skillfully cracked away and your dinner is filleted tableside. Not salty, almost sweet, the taste is as dramatic as the presentation.
Maurizio is now vice president of the corporation, but you won''t find him sequestered away in an office somewhere. You will find him keeping a grueling schedule between several cities, doing what he knows best: bringing authentically Italian food to this country. In 11 years, the company has grown to 15 restaurants, with four more slated for next year, branching out toward the East Coast. I laughed out loud when I learned they''re opening in Atlanta-just the thought of all those southern drawls co-mingling with Italian. Pretty amazing stuff when you realize that when this VP first came here, it was months before he understood how to get a cup of coffee-regular or decaf? Cream and sugar? For here or to go? "Thank God, espresso finally made it here," he laughs.
At each new site, Maurizio will be well-known-by his first name, too-months before each place opens. Testing, training, doing all the endless nuts and bolts stuff. So that when the doors open we can say, "Hmm, not bad. Piece ''a cake." cw