I've been wanting to try La Fornaretta after reading several positive posts on this board. I specifically wanted to visit because La F. is billed as a Sicilian restaurant. My husband and I have traveled (read: eaten) extensively through Sicily using Gambero Rosso, Fred Plotkin's book and an Italian language trattoria guidebook to pick restaurants, and we had some fantastic food. So I was hoping to enjoy some great Sicilian fare.
We went last Saturday, on a rainy night, early before a concert. The restaurant was nearly empty when we arrived at six but when we left at 7:30 it was full. There's a nice bar and a large window at the front; it was pleasant to watch the rain outside and enjoy a glass of wine inside.
I'll cut to the chase: I ordered a dish billed as a Palermitan specialty: Pasta alla Sfincioni. It was the first dish on the list of pasta specialties and that indicates to me that the restaurant wants to emphasize it. The waiter described it in great detail, saying it had anchovies, currants, caramelized onions and bread crumbs. It sounded very much like a classic Sicilian sweet-savory sauce, and they do use bread crumbs quite a bit. (Never waste a thing, on this long-impoverished island.)
The dish came and instead of smelling appetizing, it smelled like rancid oil. I was really put off by the odor. Reluctantly I tasted it and it didn't have any anchovy taste that I could detect. I sent it back after discussing my reaction with the waiter. My working theory is that the bread crumbs were sauteed in butter or oil and stored too long at room temperature. They were on top of the dish and I expect that is why it smelled strongly of rancidity. Of course the restaurant denied that there was any possibility of something being off, although the waiter did remove the dish not only from our table but from the bill.
So I ordered Spaghetti Carbonara as a Plan B. (Yes, I know it's not Sicilian, but I just wanted comfort food at that point.) Huge mistake. The waiter warned me that it was not a creamy carbonara, but I just thought he meant there was no cream in it. Instead what arrived was a platter of pasta tossed with strips of prosciutto, green peas and bits of *scrambled egg*, swimming in some sort of brownish broth. "Huh?" I said. So I explained Spaghetti Carbonara to the waiter (pancetta or bacon, eggs, parmesan, toss with pasta). Scrambled egg??? What's with the brown broth? And again, it tasted completely bland and without flavor. Pasta with prosciutto and peas could be tasty, but this wasn't. And folks, it sure ain't Spaghetti Carbonara.
So at this point I was ready to throw in the towel and just order something with a simple red sauce. Instead, the waiter summons the owner, who comes over and sits at the next table. We have the obligatory 15-minute conversation with the owner, during which he informed me that I don't understand Sicilian food, they have different recipes, and his recipes are from the popular restaurants they have had for 30 years in San Francisco. This might sound impressive until it comes out that he is talking about suburbs such as Corte Madera. He specifically mentioned the restaurant in Corte Madera that they have had since 1972. I didn't argue with him--I didn't really want to spend my Saturday evening in a pissing match with a restaurateur--but I'd note here that saying your restaurant has been successful in Corte Madera since 1972 is hardly a badge of honor in the culinary world.
We did learn that the owner's wife was NOT in the kitchen that night, which might explain the problem, although the owner defended the chef and his capabilities. Having had such a disastrous experience, though, I'm not inclined to visit again in the hope that a better chef might be cooking.