Fresco II on the marina
1651 S. Victoria Ave.  
$14 – $39

Fresco II sits in the Seabridge shopping center, nestled between bustling Victoria Avenue and the quiet of the marina in Oxnard. It is the second iteration of the Mediterranean restaurant (the other Fresco II is in Palmdale), whose menu is jammed full of Greek and Italian dishes ranging from pizzas to pasta, seafood to lamb, shrimp to souvlaki.

A vast and spacious restaurant, it offers dimly lit tables good for romantic dinners and family feasts, and seats in the lively bar, each with a good vantage point of one of the multitude of flat-screen televisions hanging on the exposed brick walls. And if sunshine is what you seek, there are seats on the patio where seagull- and boat-watching are the name of the game on warm afternoons.

The word fresco means “fresh” in Italian, which speaks not only to the food but also to the vibe of the place. The restaurant is crisp, clean and open, with modern decorative touches like dark wooden tables topped with woven placemats and tea lights, ornate chandeliers that offset the exposed brick walls, and massive wine racks stacked with shiny bottles of wine that line the entryway as guests are escorted to their tables.

The wine and beer lists at Fresco II are impressive, but it is the list of cocktails that truly wows. A root beer float cocktail, a cantaloupe martini and a peach chai tea cocktail are among the most unusual. There is also an array of scotch and bourbon and a selection of skinny cocktails for those counting calories. Though I ordered a glass of Qupe syrah, I did make a mental note to return with some girlfriends and indulge in a cocktail or two. My husband ordered a Guinness — at $7 for a 20-ounce beer, the giant mug was a great value.

As we studied the menu, the dim lighting and the dark background of the large menu made it difficult to read, and we found ourselves wishing for an extra candle. The choices here are endless — should we choose the Saganaki Opa!, the fried kasseri cheese that the chef had just flambéed with fanfare at the table next to us, or that towering Lenny’s meatball the size of a tennis ball that received an animated thumbs-up from the gentleman at the table on the other side of us?

As we debated, our server brought us a fresh loaf of sweet, doughy bread with a glistening crust and a vibrant dip, known as skordalia. We were enamored from the first bite. With an initial kick like that of a strong mustard or horseradish, we found ourselves struggling to pinpoint the source of the intense flavor. Our server explained that most of the flavor comes from loads of garlic, yogurt, walnuts, and lemon and perhaps a secret ingredient or two.

Drawn in by the description touting it as a secret family recipe, we started with the Madeira stuffed mushrooms, filled with mozzarella cheese and baked to a dark golden brown. Though we loved the idea of them, the mushrooms were lacking in flavor and the Madeira, a fortified Portuguese wine, was hard to detect.

For entrees, we selected the chicken Marsala and the kleftiko lamb. The slowly braised lamb — so tender it is falling off the bone — is served over a bed of orzo and roasted vegetables, all infused with a flavorful braising liquid. Each bite was like comfort on a fork — the tender meat and orzo glistening with olive oil and braising liquid.

The chicken Marsala is equally impressive — a large, well-breaded chicken cutlet on a bed of linguini, finished with a sauce of shallots, garlic, mushrooms and Marsala wine. A sprinkling of fresh parsley completes the dish. We loved the contrast of the crunchy breaded chicken to the soft noodles that had happily soaked up the tangy sauce.

For dessert, we were too tempted by the sound of fresh cannoli to turn them down. The two overstuffed cannoli are finished with dollops of whipped cream and a dusting of powdered sugar. The shells are crisp and the filling, the ideal balance of mascarpone and ricotta cheeses, sweetness and tang, and flecked with semisweet chocolate chips. They even rivaled my all-time favorite cannoli found at Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s North End, a pleasant surprise here in Oxnard.

Throughout the evening, the service was stellar. There was ample wait staff, service was efficient, and the food well-paced. Though we did find the menu options so vast it was overwhelming, our server remedied that well and was a gem when it came to offering us guidance on our menu choices. From the hostess who seated us to the server who boxed up our leftovers, from the bread to the dessert, Fresco II impressed.

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