Went for a long walk with the missus last night and ended up at the counter at Il Fornaio in Beverly Hills (301 N Beverly Dr., (310) 550-8330). First, let me just say that if I ever hit the lottery, I'd like to have a kitchen like theirs, with its giant five skewer bronze rotisserie turning over a beautiful oak fire, its real wood burning pizza oven, and the big open grill over blazing mesquite charcoal. Also, being able to watch people cook with these "appliances" makes sitting at the counter a real treat, at least if you can deal with the kitchen envy.
As soon as we were seated (which was within 3 minutes of walking in at 8 pm on a Sunday) we got the obligatory basket of Il Fornaio bread, a nice combination of different kinds of bread and breadsticks, all fresh, and a dish of olive oil for dipping. For starters, we each ordered a bowl of minestrone soup, which was excellent. I've always liked Il Fornaio's version of this soup, with abundant fresh vegetables and good clean flavor. (Wonder what they use as a stock/base?) Topped with grated parmesan on request. Simple, but very satisfying.
For our main course, we split the pollo mattone alla diavola off their "festa regionale" menu of Tuscan dishes. This consisted of a half chicken, partially boned, marinated with herbs and peperoncino, grilled (on the aforementioned mesquite coal) under a brick. It was served with roasted fingerling potatoes and a nice salad of baby spinach, white beans, red onion, and cherry tomatoes. They brought out the dish on a single plate, gave each of us a small plate of our own, and let us take care of the division, which worked out perfectly (at least from my perspective). The chicken was incredibly juicy with a perfect crispy sear from the grill, and, based on how hot it was, I'd guess it was put down in front of us within 90 seconds of coming off the fire. Served with half a fresh lemon (and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice really highlights the flavors of this kind of cooking). I pretty much inhaled my half, and a fair amount of my better half's half.
I know Il Fornaio is something of a chain and gets mixed reviews on this board, but I have to say, this meal hit just the right note for me. It was simple and direct, even kind of elegant. I've enjoyed Il Fornaio for breakfast for years, but the couple of times in the past when I've been there for lunch or dinner, I've always been disappointed. Not this time. The key, I think, must be to order dishes that take advantage of all that fabulous cooking equipment on display. While we were eating, we saw about dozen pizzas go into and then come out of that wood burning oven. I love the slightly smoky flavor of pizza cooked this way (like in Nice), and I suspect one of these puppies will be tried on our next visit.