Franco Barone crafted his legacy from scratch, and now son Jon is preparing to take a place in the Il Barone family business.
At 10:30 on a Wednesday morning, just half an hour before doors are to open for lunch, Donatella Barone answers the phone — her cell phone, to be exact. Conversing in Italian, English and occasionally a combination of both, she’s already taking reservations for the day ahead. The calls seem endless. One after the other they roll in, loyal patrons securing a table in advance. Twenty minutes later, she’s at a table with guests, sitting down and laughing like old friends catching up at a reunion. I don’t have to guess that this is a typical day at Il Barone. I know it is.
Coming to the family-owned and -operated Newport Beach location is like stepping into a crimeless version of “The Godfather.” Chef Franco Barone, who first rose to popularity at Antonello Ristorante, is now the owner of a multiple-concept empire. At this location, the newest of their endeavors, the enthusiasm is tangible. Managing the front of the house, Donatella is putting flowers in vases. Chef Franco is providing us with some insight into the art of pasta making. Their son Jon, slated to be the carrier of the Il Barone legacy, weaves in and out of the kitchen to prep for what is to come. Their younger son, Phillip, works at their Bottega location and nephew Frank plays a big role in operations. It’s truly a Sicilian family affair.
Glass panels lend a glimpse into different parts of the kitchen: the brick pizza oven, where Roman-style variations are born; the pasta-making corner, where from-scratch dough takes its final shape. The back of the house reminds us of its place with the sound of veal being pounded.
“From beginning to end, you are taken care of.” That’s Donatella’s response to the question: “What do you want customers to feel when they enter Il Barone?” Already it seems as though I’ve entered a relative’s home on Christmas day. There’s a sense of warmth and welcoming that’s reminiscent of the holiday season.
Donatella leads me through the menu but stops more than once to emphasize the significance of the ever-changing daily specials, which vary for lunch and dinner. Fish arrives daily, own in and seasonal, while pasta is freshly curated depending on the day’s featured dishes. “Pasta is best served simply” — it’s a mantra, of sorts, for the Barone family. But the pasta dishes are far from basic. The linguine aragosta ricci di mare e bottarga is a delicate amalgamation of Barone’s hand-rolled pasta, lobster, sea urchin and shaved bottarga roe. The roasted veal is a cast iron-housed savory gratification. Again, I’m reminded of the care that goes into the cuisine. Each dish is about the final touch. And it shows.
The cream-based limoncello, made on-site and bottled for its loyal fans, as well as all of the desserts, are careful delicacies. Bomboloni caldi alla crema is the name for the beloved soft Italian donuts, their centers filled with vanilla cream and tops dusted with powdered sugar. Strudel di mele is the family’s rendering of apple strudel, destined for its pairing with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
It’s understood that Il Barone holds a dish for every customer that walks through its doors. Passion, comfort, home cooking — these are all intentions of the Barone family, held closely and properly emulated. Whether it be a small distance or one stretching as far as Siciliy, Il Barone is a home away from home, a precious gem and a beloved destination for Italian cooking.