Boccali’s and summertime are synonymous in Ojai. After the heat of the recalcitrant sun starts to fade, residents of Ojai head toward the east end of town for an early supper. Yes, they go for the hand-rolled pizza, fresh eggplant parmesan or one of three lasagnas, but the secret lies in the seasonal menu items that somehow make the temperatures seem bearable.
At times, venues in Ojai can appear very Tuscan and none more so than Boccali’s. Its small, wooden building sits at the gateway into upper Ojai, nestled in ancient, serpentine oak trees, surrounded by fields of ripening produce. Picnic tables topped with vibrant umbrellas create a rustic country atmosphere dripping with European charm. There is seating inside and out, but the al fresco dining is the heart of the Boccali’s experience and the perfect setting to watch the salmon sunset illuminate the Ojai valley. Generations of families sit together, babies are passed around and stories shared between neighbors. Glasses of fresh lemonade squeezed from local citrus appear by the tray-full and echo simpler times.
My dining companions and I had every intention of sampling my summer favorites — the fresh tomato salad and the bigger-than-life strawberry shortcake as well as the pasta primavera or a pizza. As I started to order I discovered my timing was slightly off. The tomato salad featuring juicy, sliced Ace tomatoes is served only at the peak of the growing season, and the tomatoes weren’t going to be ripe for another week or so. I was briefly disappointed until our waiter mentioned an alternative — his favorite pizza featuring seasonal homemade pesto sauce.
The pizza arrived in a timely manner with its rolled, flour-dusted crust filled with pesto sauce, tomato slices, prosciutto, onion, garlic and basil. The luscious green sauce soaked into the thin center of the crust and dripped through onto the plate, creating verdant, olive oil swirls. My dining companion found it a bit oily for his taste, and admittedly it was hard to pick up a saturated slice without dropping several ingredients, but to me its flavors brought to mind rich focaccias of my past. Ribbons of lightly browned prosciutto sat on the tomato slices topped with fresh chopped garlic, lightly cooked onions and crispy oven-baked basil. The sweet, purple onions balanced the salty cured meat, and the cooked basil leaves lent a crunchy, peppery, lightly medicinal flavor. It was art.
In all fairness, getting through a summer meal at Boccali’s, no matter what entrees are ordered, is much like trying to sit through class the day before summer starts. The problem lies in watching huge, Willie Wonka-sized desserts being delivered to other customers. When we ordered the strawberry shortcake and my companions considered getting two, I almost choked. They understood my reaction when the berry Matterhorn was placed on our table. Huge, neon-red strawberries sat on top of the large shortcake, topped off with a snowy pile of white whipped cream. My companions dove in, and one exclaimed, “Wow! Quite remarkable. I don’t think I’ve ever had that the real way.” The other only lent, “Mmmmmm.” Authentic shortcake resembles a biscuit or scone rather than the spongy craters sold in a grocery store. The salty shortcake highlighted the sweet berries and the dense pastry soaked up the juice making every crumbly bite complete. The dessert easily satisfied three people and, if you eat pizza, could be stretched to serve four.
The balance of flavors and punch of fresh produce all bring together the summertime experience that only Boccali’s creates. Soon I’ll return for the famed tomato salad.