Lucerne Italian Restaurant
868 Arneill Road, Camarillo
$8.95 – $19.95

My parents fell in love over plates of canneloni. It was 1970, and these two college students from North Carolina met on a summer voyage to Europe. Apparently, they fell in love in Florence over this delectable pasta dish, and the rest is history. Perhaps that’s why I have a thing for Italian food. There’s nothing more comforting than a big bowl of pasta with fresh tomato sauce or a mile-high square of decadent lasagna. Lucerne Restaurant in Camarillo offers all of this and more, accompanied by a dash of “mangia!” from owners Jose and Roberto Irive.

Stopping in on a recent Thursday evening, we were immediately struck by the customer service. We received a warm welcome when we entered, and as I sat down, our server (who happened to be one of the owners, Roberto) smiled politely as he shook out my dinner napkin, placing it gently on my lap. We watched as other diners finished their meals, kissed the owners goodbye, and headed out into the night. Clearly, there was something special about this place, and I couldn’t wait to dig in and experience it firsthand.

For those who love Italian food, the menu is like a Dear Santa wish list of goodies, from gnocchi to risotto, chicken marsala to veal saltimbocca. Fried calamari, caprese salad, veal tortellini, and penne with vodka sauce are just the beginning. While we struggled to choose our entrees from this tantalizing list, we started with an order of bruschetta — two thick slabs of the homemade bread topped with a tangy mixture of olive oil, finely chopped tomatoes, capers and feta that slowly seeped into the bread. My only regret: there were only two pieces, which seemed a bit sparse for $8.95. When we turned our attention to the bread basket, we were met with yet another delight. It was filled with fresh-baked, heart-shaped dinner rolls and thick slices of bread. Both were steaming hot, soft and enclosed in a crisp buttery crust.

Though it was a long process, after about 20 minutes of debating, we had finally decided on our entrees: risotto de la casa for me, and pollo gorgonzola for my companion. Most of the entrees come with a choice of soup or salad, and those arrived soon thereafter. The Caesar salad was full of crunchy crisp romaine, tossed with a garlic-infused dressing, freshly grated parmesan and croutons made from the same delectable bread. The minestrone soup was soothing, simple and full of chunks of carrot and celery. Though it wasn’t as thick and hearty as traditional minestrone, I liked that it was light, the perfect warm-up for an Italian feast.

The risotto was full of sun-dried tomatoes, onions, shrimp, thin slices of sausage and chunks of chicken in a slightly spicy tomato cream sauce. It was thick, rich and filling … akin to a jambalaya, but even more hearty and decadent.

The risotto itself had a nice bite to it, and was lacking the mushiness that sometimes befalls even the best risotto.

Obviously, these chefs know how to do risotto right.

The pollo gorgonzola is a tender, thin chicken cutlet topped with a thick sauce filled with the flavor of gorgonzola and white wine. Though it looked almost like gravy, it was tangy and flavorful and flecked with fresh chopped parsley and parmesan. It was served with sautéed vegetables and a side of pasta. The corkscrew fusilli noodles were tossed with a fire-engine-red, unadulterated tomato sauce with the perfect amount of acidity. It was clearly fresh, the antithesis of the overly sweetened, jarred tomato sauces you find in the supermarket.

Just as were pushing our plates away and assessing if there was room for dessert, Roberto arrived with an eye-catching platter of desserts — carrot cake, cheesecake, tiramisu and more. We settled on a slice of mocha crunch cake and an order of cannoli. The cake consisted of four thin layers of chocolate cake, filled with a thick mocha cream; and the outside of the cake was covered in crunchy chocolate pieces. The cannoli, tube-shaped shells of fried pastry dough, were filled with a thick and sweet ricotta cheese filling, decorated with chocolate chips at each end, and adorned with whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. The contrast of the cinnamon flavor of the crunchy shell with the vanilla flavor of the smooth filling was captivating.

Lucerne also offers an extensive wine list; and cappucino, espresso and lattes are available as well. All the more to draw out the evening and transport you back to Italy.

Though it is sandwiched between Kmart and Radio Shack, do not be fooled. Lucerne is a white-tablecloth, decadent dining kind of a place. And yet somehow, thanks to the inviting service, the owners have filled their space with a laid-back, neighborly kind of vibe. Lucerne Restaurant is the perfect place to enjoy a quiet meal, to celebrate a special occasion, or even to fall in love.