Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Il Forno Classico hits and misses

For starters, let’s figure out the difference between “il forno” and “il fornaio,” as in the Italian restaurant Il Forno Classico and the chain of Italian restaurant-bakeries Il Fornaio. “Il forno” translates as “the oven.” “Il fornaio” is “the baker.” Now we can sleep at night.

We pulled into Gold River Town Centre and parked in front of Il Forno Classico. Impressive. A stately awning is above the front door, flanked by two large arced lamps. A covered patio holds tables and chairs, and offers a view of parked cars — but waddaya gonna do?

If we squinted and used tunnel vision, we could almost believe we were somewhere in Italy. That’s because of the classy lettering on another awning, highlighting parts of the menu and the bar: “Pollo, Risotto, Pesce, Bistecca, Vino, Martini.” Very European. Our appetites stirred.

Inside, we were greeted by an open kitchen and stacked wooden boxes of wine. The place was buzzing, and the buzz was echoing. Loudly. Along with the noise of clattering plates, a sound that shouldn’t be heard outside of a diner.

The faux-Tuscan feel of the main room was pleasant – high ceilings, tall columns, arches, soft lighting from alabaster-like “bowl pendants” (sort of like chandeliers) and sconces, walls painted in a soothing shade, bottles of wine lined up around the room in decorative fashion. The bar was packed and a birthday party was going on in the Wine Room, the crowd gathered at long tables surrounded by walls of wine for sale.

Il Forno offers up to 650 bottles of wine at any given time. They’re mostly sourced from West Coast wineries, but 60 or so are Italian. For 10 years, the Wine Room hosted Thursday-night flight-tasting parties, but they stopped in April because “the concept spread to so many other restaurants that it was no longer a big deal,” said owner-general manager Scott Litteral. Now he encourages patrons to create their own flights at the bar from 50 by-the-glass and half-glass pours.

The Wine Room is used for special-occasion private parties and house-sponsored events, such as the imaginative monthly Secret Dinner program. Diners can sign up for four courses paired with four wines for $50 a person, and won’t know what’s on the menu until it’s served. August featured bacon-wrapped scallops, black-pepper pararadelle, filet mignon wrapped in Tuscan prosciutto and mixed-berry pie with vanilla ice cream. The remaining dinners for the year are sold out, with wait lists (call the restaurant or email Litteral at

“I also want to do pop-up movie nights in the Wine Room and (screen) movies like ‘The Big Night’” (1996, with Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub),” Litteral said. Hopefully, a timbale or two will be involved.

Back in the dining room, we played with the extensive “wine list,” which is an iPad that imparts in-depth info in seconds. Curious about a certain region, winery, winemaker or vintage? Swipe across or dig in the screen for a show that includes photos and videos. A very cool and handy tool.

Anticlimactically, we ordered iced teas and sodas and examined a round loaf of warm bread on a cutting board, with a side of dipping oil-vinegar. “We used to bring the kids in years ago just for the minestrone and this bread,” said a lunch pal.

The bread lacks the glamor of, say, Gina Lollobrigida, but still is a local celebrity with a big fan base. Sacramento magazine called it the “most addictive” bread in town.

“It’s made from a family recipe that came out of necessity,” said Litteral. “Within two years of opening, we were purchasing over $2,000 a month in bread from the (since closed) Dante’s bakery, so we needed to come up with something (of our own, baked in-house). Then it got to the point where people would come in, split a lunch special and go through three loaves of bread.”

That’s when Il Forno began limiting the loaves and charging for them after the first two per table ($2.50 for small, $4 for large). “(That policy) is a safety net,” Litteral explained, and it makes sense to us. Even though I was the only one at the table who thought the crust was so-so and the inside rather gummy.

We went through a bowl of mussels and clams in “Chardonnay garlic butter” sauce. We thought the tasteless shellfish showed their age, and weren’t helped by the listless broth. And what was an unopened clam doing there? When a clam is cooked and the shell fails to open, that means the animal was not fit to eat.

Slightly overcooked linguine with creamy pesto sauce and whole pine nuts was steaming hot, the best dish on the table.

Salad-wise, slices of warm portobello mushrooms mingled with basil aioli, roasted red peppers, chilled greens and tomato. Grated feta cheese melted into the salad, enhancing the flavors. But the blue cheese and walnuts mentioned on the menu were no-shows. Hmm. Why would the kitchen want to combine feta and blue cheeses in the first place?

A classic margherita pizza is as simple as pizza gets – chewy crust, fresh mozzarella, sliced fresh tomato, fresh basil. Next time you’re in the Napa Valley, try the luscious take on it at Redd Wood in Yountville ( In a town that abounds with excellent pizza, we found Il Forno’s version lacking. That was surprising, given that Litteral and his parents have opened about 16 restaurants over the years. Now they have two, including Pizzeria Classico on Sutter Street in Folsom.

After 18 years on the scene, it’s clear that Il Forno has a loyal clientele dedicated to its menu ($9 to $23) of great-sounding dishes — panko-crusted ahi, skirt steak salad, veal piccata, three-meat lasagna, seafood risotto. ... We’d like to give those and other items a try, but we’re not in a rush.