140 W. Hillcrest Drive
I must admit, I’ve shied away from going to Italian restaurants for months now. Reason being, last summer my wife and I took a trip to Northern Italy, where we attempted to eat our way through the entire region. We succeeded. The experience opened my eyes to how using the simplest ingredients of the highest quality can change your taste buds forever. The Farm to Table movement isn’t a new trend in Italy because they never abandoned the practice in the first place. I’m not saying it’s entirely fair to compare Italian restaurants in California to those in the country from which their dishes come, but if your reputation is authentic Italian, then the conversation should at least be had, right?
Marcello Ristorante in Thousand Oaks has been in business going on 23 years. The reviews online have been stellar, and some friends were shocked to hear that I had yet to dine at Marcello and they added, “You have to review it, it’s such a classic.” I figured it was about time for me to embrace local Italian again and give Marcello a try.
The first thing we noticed when we walked in was the instant warmth of classy ambience: white tablecloths, lit candles, warm lighting, and just enough space to feel privacy, but not isolation. The mood in the restaurant was classy and romantic, and it instantly took me back to an unforgettable ristorante in Treviso, Italy. Given Marcello’s strip mall location, which is a cannoli’s throw away from Chuck E. Cheese, it deserves very high marks on the feeling it was able to achieve in the restaurant. But could they capture the taste of Italy?
The waiter (a native Italian — always a good sign) came to the table with warm bread and tapenade made from blended sundried tomatoes, olive oil, basil, parmesan, capers and red peppers. The flavors of the tapenade were brilliant and it had to be one of the best accompaniments to bread that I’ve had in a long time.
Palates already pleased, we ordered a bottle of Chianti along with an appetizer of grilled tomatoes topped with creamy burrata and fresh basil, which was wrapped in prosciutto. Yes, it does taste as good as it sounds. The burrata was decadent and creamy with a touch of sour, which can’t fully live up to its potential unless served with salty prosciutto and basil, of course. The only thing that surprised me was that I would have preferred my tomato raw. I usually lean toward grilled anything if given the option, but with this dish, grilling the tomato took away the acid, which my taste buds really wanted. Chalk it up to a personal preference, I guess, because it was sublime nonetheless.
We also started with a unique dish of rice balls with mozzarella and peas inside, served over a spicy red sauce. When I read the ingredients, I thought the peas would be an afterthought, but somehow they really stood out in this dish. The rice balls were crisp and the mozzarella was warm and tasty, but the peas kept shining through. My only complaint was that the “spicy sauce” didn’t even have a hint of spice. It was a simple tomato sauce that, if it had been served spicy, would have taken this dish to the next level. Bummer.
Moving on to my second glass of Chianti, my eyes were transfixed by a beautiful framed picture of Siena, Italy. Looking at the square where the famous Palio horse race is held made me feel as though I was on vacation just as our entrees arrived.
My wife ordered the cappellacci — small homemade pasta folds filled with ricotta and spinach, in a tomato and cream sauce. I ordered the special of the night — pork tenderloin stuffed with Swiss chard and parmesan, served over sliced potato gratin. It’s OK to drool while you read this because both of those dishes are worth drooling over. My wife’s pasta was perfectly cooked, delicate and rich. The tomato cream sauce was not heavy, as I expected it to be, and the spinach and ricotta pasta filling made this dish a very admirable bowl of authenticity. My meal was exceptional. I often shy away from stuffed pork tenderloin because when you cut the tenderloin open, it makes it so easy to overcook. This dish was put together by a very experienced chef. The pork was moist and the bitter Swiss chard and sharp Parmesan flavors were so well-balanced, I cleaned the plate better than a dishwasher could have. We finished the meal off with the panna cotta and affogato. While the affogato (coffee-based beverage) was forgettable, the panna cotta (lemon custard with puréed fresh berries) is a must-order. One of the best I’ve had.
Overall, I must say that there could be no improvements made to the ambience or the service. It was impeccable. The food was delicious and shone in places you wouldn’t normally expect. Did it truly taste of Italy? All I can say is that at times it did and at times it didn’t. What I will say, however, is that Marcello Ristorante is absolutely worth the trip and deserves to be open for another 23 years. Tutto bene.