Grain of Truth
Il Farro welcomes you before you step inside with a sidewalk cafe exterior with a partial view of the bustling Newport Pier, a full view of the tiny patio at boisterous Rockin' Baja Lobster Bar & Grill and an opportunity to mix frighteningly close with the who's who list of colorful barflies pouring from the Blue Beet next door.
There are far fewer—if any—half-baked/naked people inside Il Farro, but the scene is eye-opening. Walking through the door, you're immediately drawn to the impressively stocked bar, where wine bottles seemingly rise floor to ceiling. The food/dessert/bread counter in front of it lets you know this is also a working market. Finally, the seating area is cozy, subdued and inviting—a reprieve from the clang-clangy freak show outside.
Melting into your seats, you scan a bar menu and food menu and dessert menu and liqueur menu; each goes on close to forever. The list of a gazillion martinis seems out of place in the mellow environs, but this is Newport Beach. (Shout out to Sharkeez across the parking lot: WOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!) Not that there's anything wrong with that: Il Farro is a quiet oasis in suds-soaked Ho & Bro Central. Our party of four chose a naughtily pleasing Chianti classico that our super-attentive waitress recommended we let breathe for 10 minutes. Yeah, right, sistah! Down the hatch. WOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!
Actually, she was mistaken; we should have waited 20 minutes. Or had it with dessert.
Once the wine was just right, it complemented what was left of our Mediterranean cuisine. Two tablemates had the ravioli di formaggio al pomodoro o pesto—which is a long way of saying ravioli with pesto or tomato-basil sauce. They went with bloody; their socks were literally knocked off (another story; quite embarrassing), and their portions were so big they could have split one order.
I chose farrucci della casa, because della casa is my go-to dish at my (now other) favorite Italian restaurant, Nick's Pizza in Costa Mesa. Il Farro's is similar: tube pasta accompanied with garlic, virgin olive oil, and fresh and sun-dried tomatoes. Nick's also includes artichoke hearts; Il Farro's has chicken. Now I want it with both, and I ain't too proud to beg.
Besides the bird vs. 'chokes issue, Il Farro's pasta is darker and chewier than Nick's, whose homemade pastas are the same light color as those traditionally found at Italian joints in these parts. Il Farro's pasta is made from the grain that gives the place its name. Farro, which their menu dubs "a gift of nature" and "the founder of all wheat," had been the basic nourishment for Middle Easterners and northern Africans for 2,000 years before health nuts "rediscovered" it in recent years—which makes it sound as if Middle Easterners and northern Africans knew not what they were stuffing in their pieholes for 2,000 years until those helpful health nuts came along. You'd think you were reading an industrial hemp brochure when you scan literature on the Wonder Grain's many uses, higher yields and medicinal qualities.
Farro grew on the southern Italian family farm of chef Domenico Maurici, who opened the restaurant with his brother Michael after a visit to Orange County. All I know is, it tastes fine enough and, once in my tummy, feels more substantial than other pastas. My wide, shallow bowl was so fulla farro I could not possibly finish my entrée. First off, I'd foolishly filled up with three slices of fresh bread dipped in oil, garlic and spices before my salad arrived. Second, that salad not only contained baby mix lettuce, feta cheese and house balsamic dressing but also another healthy dollop of farro, here resembling bulgur wheat. The salad portion was so big that two of us had to split it. And I got two more reheated lunches out of my main dish.
Meanwhile, their minestra povera di farro vellutata—a "traditional old recipe" where the farro actually makes up the soup stock with tomato, basil, roasted garlic and onions—satisfied a vegan in our party for a miserly $5.99.
Tasty, healthy, relatively inexpensive and vegan-friendly: beat that, Rockin' Baja Lobster Bar!
IL FARRO CAFFE TRATTORIA, 111 21ST PL., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 723-5711; WWW.ILFARRO.COM. OPEN MON.-FRI., 10:30 A.M.-MIDNIGHT; SAT.-SUN., 10:30 A.M.-1:30 A.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $16-$50, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.
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