Lovers of Italian food can “mangia bene” (eat well) at one of the county’s newest restaurants — Il Cortile in downtown Paso Robles.
Il Cortile opened its doors in November, introducing patrons to the Southern Italian creations of Chef Santos MacDonal, who co-owns the eatery with his wife, Carole MacDonal.
A native of Honduras, the unassuming chef is a seasoned veteran of several top Los Angeles restaurants, including Giorgio, Koi, Locanda del Lago and Via Veneto.
The MacDonals discovered Paso Robles during a postponed honeymoon and moved to the area three years ago, though Carole still commutes to L.A. to continue her longtime career of producing hit television shows such as “The Biggest Loser.”
The couple was also lucky enough to discover the newly built Il Cortile building while it was still in the early stages of construction, and they were able to be involved in the floor layout and the interior design from the ground up. The elegant and welcoming result is a “contemporary Old World style,” said Carole. “We wanted a warm feeling with some modern touches, and he (Santos) got his dream kitchen.”
Carole also admitted that “while we were waiting for the restaurant to be built, we went to a lot of the local tasting rooms.” As a result, Il Cortile’s wine list includes many stellar Central Coast labels, plus “some interesting Italian choices” ranging from three different Prossecos (an Italian sparkling wine) to Chianti Classico. “We chose what we knew would go with his food and went out from there,” said Carole.
While they were fine tuning the Il Cortile concept, the MacDonals kept returning to one of their favorite cheeses — mozzarella, so a signature menu item that emerged is an appetizer featuring three different kinds of the cheese, including the creamy burrata version. Other popular favorites on the new menu include a rich lasagna, an aromatic roasted rack of lamb, risotto, grilled steaks, fresh seafood, and spaghetti with either a ragu sauce or tossed with garlic and oil and topped with fresh shrimp.
Except for a couple specialty items, Carole noted that the Il Cortile kitchen staff (most of whom have worked with Santos for many years) fashions fresh pasta every day, from pappardelle to linguini, gnocchi to ravioli.
“We make all of our sauces fresh every day, too” said Santos, “and we bake by portion, to order. We also have specials every night — usually an appetizer, fish, meat and pasta,” many of which are inspired by visits to the farmers’ market. “Most people need a list, but he can just walk through once and come up with dishes for that night,” said Carole.
In addition, Il Cortile is currently celebrating truffle season in high style by offering several dishes made with hand-shaved truffles. Because “Santos personally drives to L.A. to select them,” the earthy delicacies aren’t always available, so be sure to call ahead if you want to splurge on this exotic taste treat.
Carole also revealed there’s another special production in the works.
To share their mutual love of all things Italian, the MacDonals are crafting something along the lines of “ ‘Paso Robles learns to speak Italian,’ and we hope it’s going to be a lot of fun!” she said. The six- to eight-week event will start in late January and will feature a special tasting menu paired with specific wineries, as well as Italian translations and pronunciation tips.
(Here’s some info that will give you a jump start on the festivities: Il Cortile means “The Courtyard” in Italian and is pronounced “eel kohr-tee-leh.”)
January is San Luis Obispo County Restaurant Month, featuring three-course prix fixe menus for $30 per person, some with wine pairings at an extra charge. Go to www.sanluisobispocounty.com/restaurantmonth for a list of participating restaurants and sample menus. Reservations may be recommended or required.