I got into Las Vegas a week ago last Saturday at 7:00 p.m. Considering my body was still on Central time and the fact that I hadn't eaten in 9 hours, I was pretty hungry. When I met up with my colleagues at the Monte Carlo, I found that we were just getting ready to go next door to New York New York to eat at Il Fornaio. It didn't matter where we ate, I was starved.
Il Fornaio is an Italian restaurant situated on the "streets" of the casino/hotel. It has a little "sidewalk" cafe look to it with tables on the outside of the restaurant. Inside the door, the restaurant's decor is likened to a New York City Italian restaurant - lots of dark wood paneling with a number of antique fixtures throughout the place.
Il Fornaio (see corporate web site here) - which roughly means "The bakery" in English - started out as a baking school in Italy in the early 1970's. In an attempt to save the dying concept of neighborhood bakeries in Italy, they opened their first bakery in Milan in the mid-70's. Today, there are over 2500 Il Fornaio bakeries scattered throughout Italy.
American retailer Williams-Sonoma bought the rights to open an Il Fornaio in the United States in the early 80's. They opened four of the Il Fornaio bakeries in the San Francisco area soon thereafter. Williams-Sonoma then sold the bakeries to a group of private investors, who in turn sold the bakeries to restauranteur/investor Larry Mindel in 1987.
Mindel expanded Il Fornaio's offering to include a full service restaurant in Corte Madera, CA. Over the next seven years, Mindel opened a number of Il Fornaio Cucina Italiano's in the Northern California area. Their first expansion to the east was in 1996 when they opened the restaurant at the New York New York casino/hotel in Las Vegas. Today, Il Fornaio boasts 23 restaurants in 4 states.
Similar to the Francesca restaurants in the Chicago area, each Il Fornaio has a specific owner/partner running the restaurant. At the one in Las Vegas, Sicilian-born chef Gianni Spatola (left) and general manager Lino Chini run the operation. Both Spatola and Chini have been associated with Il Fornaio at other company restaurants for a number of years.
It was loud in the main dining room when we walked in. But the hostess paraded us back through a series of hallways to a little quiet room that had four or five large tables in it. There was already a party of 10 seated at one of the tables and our party of 8 sat opposite them in the other corner. Even with other people in the room, it was quiet and cozy. My boss is big on conversation at dinner and he loves places where you don't have to shout from one side of the table to the other just to be heard.
Almost as soon as we were seated, we were given baskets of their homemade breads which were devoured immediately. The menu at the Il Fornaio restaurants are somewhat similar, but each chef/partner gets to add their own special twist to items.
A couple of things stood out for me - the veal scallopine caprese, which was a thin slice of veal topped with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella cheese; and the Turtei con Aragosta, which was ravioli stuffed with lobster and topped with shrimp and a cream sauce.
But one of my colleagues pointed out the Petto di Pollo al Peperoncino - a full chicken breast marinated with sage, rosemary, thyme, crushed red pepper, white wine, Dijon mustard and lemon. It sounded good. And since it was late, it was a lot lighter than the other two dishes. I ordered that with the Il Fornaio house salad of mixed greens, garlic croutons, fresh shaved parmesan cheese and a house vinaigrette.
The wine list was adequate. Most of the wines were Californian in origin, but there was a good number of Italian wines, as well. One of my Canadian colleagues is well versed in Italian wines having spent a lot of time in the country. He picked out a couple bottles of a good red wine for dinner.
Our dinner came and I have to say that my food was OK. Not great, not bad - just OK. Everyone else thought the same thing. The food was deemed "serviceable" by my boss. My chicken was a little overcooked and somewhat dry, but it was edible. The herbs and spices were a little overpowering, but it was interesting to say the least. I don't know if we all were a little tired or a little hungry or maybe a lot of both, but there wasn't much conversation at dinner.
Would I recommend Il Fornaio? Yeah, but not as a first or second choice. And maybe not even as a third choice. There's a number of much better Italian restaurants in the Las Vegas area than Il Fornaio. Even with local chef/partners, it's tough to get out of line from the corporate path with a chain like Il Fornaio.