Cucina Isabella
455 Carmen Drive
$7 – $18.95

To start, let’s state the obvious: restaurant critics eat out a lot. Yes, my job entails going to a variety of restaurants — new and old, casual and elegant — in different parts of the county. Yet between tight budgets, family obligations, and always needing to try new places, all this gallivanting around isn’t very conducive to becoming a regular at any place in particular.

This never really bothered me until last night, when we took the family to Cucina Isabella in Camarillo. After getting our fill of Chianti, Italian comfort food and conversations with owner Gino Milano and manager Amedeo Greco, I actually left with a sense of longing, a longing for something more. What I want is to become a regular there and to sample everything on the menu. I want to sit and enjoy a carafe of house wine with my husband and have Gino woo me with family recipes and stories of Sicily.

Cucina Isabella has been around for six years now, yet it isn’t the Milanos’ only restaurant. Together with his wife, Connie, Gino also owns Sicily by Gino in Ventura and Gino’s Sicilian Express in Santa Barbara. And after a rough summer with a manager gone bad, this business-savvy duo is back, reclaiming Cucina Isabella and re-establishing it as the quaint neighborhood eatery it is.

On the night we stopped in, the restaurant was quiet, allowing Gino and Amedeo the time to dote on our children, melt us with their charm, and talk us through the highlights of the menu. We started with glasses of Chianti, a plate of bread (presumably their pizza dough, chewy and warm with a soft crust on the outside), and an order of mussels. Simple and rustic in a light tomato sauce, they are the perfect pairing for the bread and wine.

Though the menu offers a broad selection of thin-crust pizzas, baked seafood dishes and antipasti, on this cool fall night we went for the chicken cacciatore and pasta dishes all around. The chicken cacciatore — three large pieces of bone-in chicken, smothered and baked in a sauce of tomatoes, olives, capers, zucchini and mushrooms — tastes truly homemade, like something an Italian grandmother would simmer on the stove all day. The olives and capers bring tanginess to the dish, and the sauce infuses everything, including the spaghetti that comes on the side, with a soothing luxuriousness.

The lasagna Bolognese is equally comforting, with freshly cooked lasagna noodles filled with a meaty Bolognese and finished with a generous spread of mozzarella cheese. This rustic, simple entree is the kind of dish that you intend to eat only half of, but you keep returning for bite after bite, only to discover it, eventually, all gone. To go with our entrees, we chose a Caesar salad. It was nothing memorable, but the lettuce was crisp and offered a nice, lighter accompaniment to our meal.

We also ordered the spaghetti Bolognese, knowing it would be a hit with the kids. It is topped with the same sauce as the lasagna, offering generous amounts of ground beef and making for a hearty Italian treat. The spaghetti carbonara was also gobbled up. Seriously, who could resist this creamy pasta dish, rich with the familiar taste of butter and with ribbons of ham throughout? Though a traditional carbonara is filled with either pancetta or bacon and bits of just-cooked egg, this dish was lacking both. Yet it didn’t stop us from licking the bowl clean.

To end our meal, consistent with their sweetness and charm, Gino and Amedeo surprised our children with a fun dessert: a slice of vanilla semifreddo drizzled in chocolate sauce. This traditional Italian frozen dessert has the texture of a frozen mousse, being made of a mixture of ice cream and whipped cream.

As the kids dove in with their spoons, and we tried to convince them to share, I couldn’t help but giggle at the irony … Here we sat with our glasses of red wine and empty plates, while next door, loads of people were sweating, working hard to burn off meals just like these. I was glad to be on the other side — sitting in this cozy little cafe that is somehow both romantic and kid-friendly at the same time, and basking in the glory of a decadent Italian meal. As for the gym, there’s always tomorrow.  

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