Authentic Italy in Ojai's arcade
By JR Grant 04/14/2011
242 E. Ojai Ave.
I remember being in a small trattoria in Verona, Italy, one time, overhearing a group of American college students who had just ordered pizza for their lunch. The first one said, “There sure isn’t much sauce”; another chimed in with a similar comment about the skimpy amount of cheese. Another in the group was stunned at the paper-thin crust.
Finally, one in the group (who had grown up in this region of Italy) exclaimed, “It’s perfect, exactly like my grandfather used to make when I was a child.”
With that story as an introduction, I was pleasantly surprised to find true rustic northern Italian-style “pizza” at the newly opened La Fonte restaurant in the center of downtown Ojai’s historic arcade. The owners, Stefano and Tammi Bernardi, have become popular Ojai restaurateurs since opening their Osteria Monte Grappa there in October 2009.
Because of space limitations, the Bernardis couldn’t really expand Monte Grappa’s size and menu, so when a restaurant space became available in the arcade, the young couple negotiated a lease, and La Fonte was born.
When I first looked at the menu, it seemed very similar to Monte Grappa’s unique Italian selections: bruschetta del portico (very simple and fresh with tomato, basil, virgin olive oil and lots of garlic), insalata Veneta (radicchio and shaved fennel, tossed in vinaigrette topped with shredded Asiago cheese), and the melanzane alla pizzaiola (marinated eggplant, baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese). There were, however, lots of new and exciting-sounding salad and antipasti selections (and the pricing was very reasonable), so I started frequenting La Fonte (and sampling its fare) from the opening week.
Of course, the first menu page to catch my eye was the pizze page: 19 different artisanal creations, from the very simple pizza bambina (tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese), to the pizza lombarda (tomato sauce, mozzarella, gorgonzola, bresaola — shaved cured beef — and red onion, topped with fresh spinach and extra virgin olive oil). Each pizza is designed as an individual course and they range in price from $8 to $15. My first choice was the pizza alpina: tomato sauce, mozzarella, speck (smoked prosciutto), radicchio & gorgonzola. When it arrived I first thought there were mushrooms added; upon closer inspection and taste, I realized the chopped radicchio, when baked, curls and darkens exactly like a sliced mushroom. The taste was milder than I presupposed; I wanted the thin crust to have more than just a hint of salt, but I soon realized the speck and gorgonzola combination more than sufficed for my salt craving. It was a very interesting and satisfying pizza creation, and as soon as I’ve tried all the others I look forward to repeating its flavor sensation.
A vegetarian friend will only order the pizza Ligure (fresh basil pesto, grated grana padano cheese and green beans).
When I was finally able to sneak a bite, I could understand why; the very simple ingredients combined with the fresh flavor of the green beans really satisfy a non-carnivorous palate. We also, that night, ordered the frittura ortolana, garden vegetables and olives, breaded and fried in canola oil, served with a side of lightly spiced tomato sauce.
Delicious: fried green olives are amazing! Also good for the vegetarians is the pizza Pugliese (tomato sauce, sundried tomatoes, broccoli, olives and goat cheese). The taste combination of broccoli and olives is sensational, and a great addition to the menu. Also interesting is the pizza Piemontese (tomato sauce, mozzarella, prosciutto, artichokes, mushrooms and olives.) I’m still going down the vast array of pizza selections; when I go to dinner with a non-food-adventurous companion I’ve ordered the Pizza Siciliana (tomato sauce, mozzarella, sausage, olives, capers and red pepper flakes) as it is delicious, chewy, and most resembles what many Americans think of as thin-crust pizza. It is delicious and unique, but I look forward to sampling so many of the other specialty offerings.
A note on the restaurant itself: It is a fairly large space and, at least for now, not overly decorated with paintings, photos, or the like. One wall has a curtain partially covering a well-remembered mural (mostly of nursery rhyme characters) by noted Ojai artist the late Suzanne Miller, painted there in the 1950s. Miller’s work can be seen in many buildings and grand homes in the Bay Area, and she was commissioned in the 1940s to paint the murals at the Empire State Building. The curtain covering the mural now serves as a much-needed sound baffle; perhaps as La Fonte settles into it final décor, the sound baffling can be moved to the other wall to allow viewing of this Ojai treasure.
For now, it is the food that is drawing in the crowds. At lunch the other day, I was surprised (and very pleased) to see a number of young moms with strollers just enjoying their lunches in the arcade. That day, I selected the panino ragazzino (cotto — Italian ham — with melted mozzarella). It was a very simple and delicious panino; all the selections sound (and look) tasty and inviting.
I was with a friend there for dinner the other night, and he ordered the lasagne alla Bolognese, a very simple dish of sheets of pasta layered with ground beef and tomato sauce. We were expecting the gargantuan and overly cheesy version of this dish offered at many old fashioned Italian restaurants. La Fonte serves its dishes much more simply and lightly than that traditional fare, but the fresh and stylized artistry of the preparation is most definitely evident in each dish I’ve thus far sampled.
A lot of the service kinks of the opening month have been ironed out, and the staff now occasionally seems overly attentive. The wine list is impressive, and the artisanal style of the food is a great addition to Ojai’s culinary options.