Think of your favorite sophisticated Los Angeles or San Francisco Italian place and then imagine how easy it would be for it to be spirited away to one of California’s charming small towns in wine country. Chef meets wife in big town. Both go for a few days to a small town oozing with charm. Idea planted of transplanting there. More visits on scarce mutual days off. Work gets more stressful. Rewards don’t rise commensurately. One day, in a flash, couple decide they both want to move to small town (and tell each other it was their idea).
Something like that led Carole and Santos McDonal to open Il Cortile, just half a block from City Park, in charming downtown Paso Robles. They have been busy ever since, opening Latin-inspired La Cosecha in 2013 just three blocks away. Expect the best modern Italian food you would get in a big city, plus small-town friendliness from the staff and the ever presence of Carole in the front of the house.
You can choose to enjoy Paso’s cool evenings dining on the loggia-like patio, or dine inside at one of the cozy tables. Singles will likely be happiest seated on the stools at the bar. And best to reserve, or expect waits on Saturday nights.
A glass of Contadi Castaldi Franciacorta, a sparkling rosé from Lombardy, starts dinner off on the right note, although the impressive wine list is first and foremost pays homage to the good wines of the region. An antipasti of grilled octopus with fresh vegetables marinati in a spicy vinaigrette ($15) can be read as a take on octopus leg (for it is one) taking on al dente attributes, just like pasta. The plump legs lap up the vinaigrette of the marinated vegetables (eggplant, red peppers, and tomatoes along with cannellini beans).
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Foie gras e polenta ($17) will thrill francophiles with the classically pan seared, and generously proportioned, lobe of foie gras. It will also amaze them with its ensconcement of the foie on polenta cake. The test of a great chef is not what he does when offered a gallery of luxury ingredients — it’s whether he can turn a carrot into an entrée. Or, in this case, how he prepares polenta cake. On that score, Santos walks the walk. His polenta cake is baked precisely crisp on the outside and exactly seasoned on the inside. The light salty notes enhance the sweet cornmeal core to make it an engaging joy to devour.
Of course, none of the above poses the acid test of an Italian restaurant — how does it do with its homemade pasta? That test was, first of all, the Pappadelle al cinghiale ($21). The bands of pasta were perfectly evenly al dente and the wild boar ragu brawny in its earthiness, in diametric contrast to the delicacy of the pasta. This was Italian as good as I have had anywhere.
The ravioli di aragosta ($20) cemented the pasta qualifications. The little pillows even had the right thickness to present the lobster, shrimp and zucchini filling in the best light. Over all, a profoundly light tomato sauce that required (and received) a teaspoon to avert waste in the world.
On to secondi, and Vitello al funghi porcini ($46) was a wintery dish for a 103 degree day, but I was not going to complain about the succulent medium-rare chop I enjoyed so much. The moll chose a special, grilled branzino, that will hopefully generate regular appearances. The fleshy mediterranean sea bass sung, accompanied by the risotto primavera.
It’s a cruel world that doesn’t evolve one with a large enough stomach to always have room for dessert, but that was the case here. Therefore, I leave it to you, dear reader, to evaluate those.
Service was friendly, informed, and attentive throughout. We put our waitress through the hoops with questions and wore the food runner out so much she fled to Templeton the next day where we saw her at the fun Pinot and Paella Festival.
The wine list certainly deserves mention. Thrice a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence Winner, that fact almost conceals the details that you want to know. For this list is an homage to the rapidly evolving Paso Robles region that it occupies. While you can choose from a global selection (Italian is strong), this is one place where drinking local has big rewards.
Next time you're in San luis Obispo county, don't miss out on the town of Paso Robles and its sophisticated Italian restaurant, Il Cortile.
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