When the server brought the bread to the table, I at first thought it was a giant pita. The puffy half-moon sat upright in a narrow wicker basket and was as large as a woman’s purse. Next to the basket was a saucer of olive oil and balsamic vinegar with bits of garlic floating in it. But as strange as it looked, the most surprising thing about this warm-from-the-oven flatbread happened when I tore off a piece. It yielded to my thumb and forefinger with little force. It was as though I was tearing through tissue paper. And even though it had a hollow pocket as if it were a pita, it was unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. I barely needed to chew. The texture was unimaginably tender, as though it was made of down feathers and clouds rather than flour and water.
Whatever wizardry was involved in constructing this bread, someone knew the exact point at which to stop kneading. As any baker knows, gluten development is the culprit of toughness. Here, enough of it was allowed to attain some structural integrity but not at the expense of that melt-in-your-mouth consistency. The result is so addictive that when the server asked if I wanted another, I replied in the affirmative despite knowing it would fill me up before the rest of the meal arrived.
As you will when you dine at Il Palco. This Italian restaurant set atop the highest floor at the Source in Buena Park is very service-oriented—the kind of establishment where your water glass is a chalice and the servers offer to refill your soda before you think to ask. But even if you subtract the attentive waiters, Il Palco would still be the classiest restaurant in this M.C. Escher-eque mall. A jazz-piano soundtrack echoes in the white-marbled space. String lights dangle above the smaller of the two outdoor patios, and the larger one has a railing that separates you from a four-story drop.
After I ate the second piece of bread, using it to sop up every drop of that garlic-festooned dipping sauce, my potato-and-bacon pizza arrived. I found the unusual topping listed next to the Margherita and other Naples-style pies. But upon closer inspection, Il Palco has a few other pizzas that are not as unusual as they are Korean. The first one I noticed is the shrimp pizza. If you’re familiar with the wildly popular Mr. Pizza chain in South Korea, you’d know that shrimp is as pervasive a topping there as pepperoni.
The potato-and-bacon pizza, as it turns out, was also Korean. When I ordered it, the waiter warned me that the same chile sauce that’s in the shrimp pie made this one sweet. He didn’t for a second mention that it’s made for Korean palates or that the sweetness actually pairs well with the salty cheese, tart tomato and smoky bacon. He issued the warning, he told me, because other customers—who were presumably unaware they walked in to a Korean-owned Italian restaurant—have had a problem with it.
But the revelation I had as soon as I took my first bite wasn’t with the toppings, which tasted exactly like cheesy scalloped potatoes; it was the crust. The pizza was made from the same supple dough as the bread I had earlier. The edges were cotton-soft, but it had a floppy middle, where the dough didn’t stand a chance against the wetness of the toppings. As a result, I had to knife-and-fork it.
Aside from those pizzas, Il Palco would be indistinguishable from other upscale Italian restaurants of late. If I ordered only the Di Mare Pomodoro, I wouldn’t have suspected it came from anything other than an Italian kitchen. The dish—consisting of fork-twirlable al-dente spaghetti surrounded by scallops, two sizes of shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari—was the kind of seafood pasta I’d expect from any red-sauce joint with a mustachioed-chef stereotype cooking in the back. The most I might’ve thought was that a Calabrian was responsible, since it was spicy enough to make my lips numb.
I also wouldn’t have had a clue if I’d ordered just the rib-eye steak, which was seared to a crusty brown on all sides and served with its own pan sauce. I liked that the steak came with creamy mashed potatoes, sautéed Brussels sprouts, bacon cubes, cherry tomatoes and bright-green spears of broccolini. It’s a complete meat-and-potatoes dish that wasn’t particularly Italian; it was just good and satisfying.
But the best item of all was a deep-fried octopus, its skin oil-blistered while its meat remained delicately soft. The arm sat atop a bitter arugula salad with sliced tomatoes, oranges, fried Peewee potatoes, and a lemon-and-egg emulsion. Was it Italian? Korean? A hybrid? I didn’t care. To me, like that bread, a great dish such as this transcends any and all nationalities.
Il Palco, 6980 Beach Blvd., Ste. H-304, Buena Park, (714) 690-1430; www.il-palco.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Entrées, $16-$36. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.