The Italian Job Cafe
2810 Harbor Blvd.
From the moment we walked through the door, The Italian Job Café was uplifting. Smells of freshly baked bread scented the room, sunshine streamed through the windows, Italian music filled our ears, and we were greeted with open, genuine smiles by not one, but all the people working there.
When scrutinized, the cantaloupe and British-green color scheme combined with the glossy dark wood furniture felt partially like a tearoom, partially like an English pub. The space between the tables was a little tight, and the green ceiling above us felt a little low but, ultimately, these nuances disappeared because the overall ambience was so elevating.
The Italian Job Café is owned by a husband and wife team who had their first restaurant in Rhode Island. Upon moving to L.A., they were forced to evacuate twice because of the Malibu fires and fled up the coast. It was then that they discovered Oxnard’s beaches and lifestyle and started planning their move.
Fabrizio, from the Italian island of Sardinia, is the warm, sincere, Italian half of “The Job,” who runs the kitchen while Alison, originally from Yorkshire, England, works the front of the house, sprinkling happiness with an almost fairy godmotheresque charm.
Both my companion and I found the menu appealing. Classic lasagna or spaghetti with homemade, tender meatballs were tempting, but then so were more unusual offerings like the lentil pancetta soup, the roasted portobello, white bean, goat cheese and spinach salad, or the fresh whitefish filet with a horseradish pistachio crust. The menu was also peppered with colorful European vernacular like strozzapreti (“priest-stranglers”), a gnocchi dish and bistecca, a New York steak served with “bubble and squeak” potatoes.
Ultimately, we chose a small salad, a pizza, a pasta and salmon dish to sample. While we waited, a breadbasket appeared with saucers of buttery olive oil and a small silver carafe of balsamic. The warm, herbed focaccia with its light crust tasted as good as it smelled.
As our salad arrived, I overheard the owner Alison talking to other customers. When they asked about making a substitution on the menu, she replied in her peppy Northern England accent, “If we’ve got the ingredients, we’ll make it!” This restaurant aims to please. Later, I heard the same man proclaim to his friend upon exiting, “This should become the busiest place in town.”
Our Caesar salad was so fresh it could have been grown at the table. The lettuce was cool and crunchy with small toasted croutons. My companion described it best as “delicate.” The lightly dressed salad had the slight heat of garlic, the sweet of romaine hearts, the creaminess of the yolky, authentic Caesar dressing and the salty hit of Parmesan. We also tasted the slightest hint of anchovy. “It’s as though the anchovy was lightly dragged over the lettuce a few times,” he joked, then he said it was the best Caesar he’s ever had.
Our bianca pizza arrived with cracker-thin edges. It featured mozzarella, goat and blue cheese with caramelized onions, Italian ham, fresh herbs and white pepper. The center was soft and melty, and the sides were crisp. The combination of cheeses was done with such a discriminating hand that you got the hint of goat and hint of blue. They married well and complemented the hit of fresh rosemary and ruffled Parma ham underneath. The sweetness of the onion completed it. It, too, was delicate, the kind of pizza you can eat at lunch without feeling stuffed.
The tortelloni di zucca featured sweet puréed pumpkin and ricotta pasta with the “slightest touch of amaretto,” according to Fabrizio. The sauce was a remarkable saffron hue of creamy tomato and pesto with diced fresh tomatoes.
The flavor combination of this dish was addictive. The basil, tomato and pumpkin flavors combined to create this new layer of taste that had me rethinking the role of a tomato as fruit.
The almond-crusted salmone mandorle was served on a bed of pesto fettuccine with sautéed fresh spinach. The ground almond crust on the fish was not lightly crunchy as I’d hoped, but the chef later explained that the piece of fish he’d chosen was a thinner tail section and he didn’t want to overcook it. I would certainly rather have perfectly cooked fish with a less crisp crust. My companion quite liked it, but for me the other dishes were superior.
Fabrizio came out and introduced himself at the end of the meal as Alison had at the beginning. He showed me some of the dinner specials he’d recently served: gnocchi with artichokes and sage butter appetizer and a half-moon ravioli entree with wild mushrooms and sweet corn. Mostly, he likes simple flavors, especially at lunch.
“The Job” serves gelato and sorbetti imported from Italy and desserts like an Italian bittersweet chocolate mousse cake and torta della nonna, a Tuscan grandmother lemon and pine nut pie. There is also get a spumoni gelato on Saturdays but it sells out fast!
As we shared bites of pomegranate, hazelnut and English trifle gelato (that tastes like zabaione or eggnog), we realized we’d been there for more than two hours! Dessert was sweet but the whole experience was sweeter. Part of me wants to keep this restaurant a secret; it’s that lovely.