515 W. El Roblar.
Nestled on the main street in Meiners Oaks, Papa Lennon’s is a local’s favorite for a family dinner out, or maybe a first date. With a casual family-style dining set up, you place your order at the counter and find a table. The dining room is pleasant, and usually bustling. But if the temperature outside agrees with you, the patio is the place to sit, with a long, rustic wood picnic-style table outside, large enough for the raucous crowd after a soccer game. The ivy-covered walls, twinkling lights and serenade of water sounds from the fountain transport diners to another time, another place. Well, you are in the Ojai Valley.
We began our dinner with the caprese salad. Slices of hearty deep-red tomatoes, layered with thick slices of proper mozzarella and large leaves of fresh basil, topped with olive oil and resting in balsamic vinaigrette. You know you have a winner when the 9-year-old at your table demands to finish the plate and wants a second order. The scent of basil in the air, and with the first bite the mozzarella reveals its dominance, followed by the olive oil and tang of the balsamic vinegar. The tomato provides a bit of sweetness, with the burst of basil.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
Next was the soup of the day, a simple and divine potato-leek concoction. While I would have liked a little more leek in the mix, the flavor was balanced overall. I have had chunky potato leek soups that seemed to have been taken out of the mixer too soon. Not so here. The consistency was just as smooth as it can be.
For one of our main courses, we opted for the pepperoni pizza. An Italian-style crust — thin, crisp, lightly browned and cooked perfectly. No soggy center here. The pepperoni utterly lacked grease, a part of most pepperoni pizzas I’m happy to do without. And again, a strong thumbs-up from the kid at the table. The traditional Italian option of a margherita pizza is joined on the menu by unique pizza toppings like Thai chicken, which does sound interesting but next time I think I’ll try Papa’s Favorite: white sauce pizza made with three cheeses, blackened chicken, mushrooms, artichokes and fresh cilantro. Talk about a unique combo.
Potato Leek Soup with Caprese Salad
We had to try the pastas. The standard spaghetti with meatballs came piping hot. After several bites, the spaghetti connoisseurs at our table all agreed the noodles were a tad shy of al dente, and could have used another minute or two in the boiling water. And the simple marinara sauce was a tad watery for our taste, with an over powering presence of garlic. Wait, wait, garlic lovers; we are also fans of this fantastic bulb. But in this sauce, it was all I could taste. I prefer the traditional sweet spaghetti sauce, which is not so steeped in garlic. But the meatballs were great — decent size and nicely peppered.
We also ordered the chicken Alfredo linguini. I tend to find most places make an Alfredo that is too thick and too buttery. Papa Lennon’s did it just right. The sauce was smooth, lightly buttery with plenty of kick from the Parmesan. I’m not quite sure I like the cubes of chicken, but that is probably just an aesthetic preference for me because the chicken was tender and moist and soaked up the Alfredo sauce with ease.
A touch I especially liked was a unique offering of beers on tap, a half-dozen or so — pale ales, IPAs — and a few wines to complement the dishes. There was also delicious cider — hard and hot (oh my!) — lemonade and fabulous root beer in the dark brown bottle.
Did you ask about gelato? A true Italian eatery would have gelato and Papa Lennon’s has its own. Flavors vary, but expect that smooth, luxurious texture that is the hallmark of this heavenly food. All the desserts are made in house — crème brulée, New York cheese cake and bittersweet chocolate espresso mouse. I couldn’t choose one of those, so I went with the coffee gelato, never a mistake.
Remember, it’s a grab-your-own-utensils place, with cups and bottled water on the shelf by the wall, so make yourself at home; and if you’re lucky some of the Lennon clan may provide some live tunes outside.