Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant
2788 E. Main St., Ventura
805-648-7270 or ferrarositalian.com

How does one review a local institution such as Ferraro’s?

In business for decades, most Italian food-loving Venturans (and probably many hailing from other parts of Ventura County as well) have by now checked out this Five Points family-dining establishment, and the menu is relatively unchanged since Sam and Betty Ferraro opened the restaurant that bears their name in 1970. There’s nothing new to report. And perhaps that’s the story: Nearly 50 years and a few generations (yes, it’s still in the family) later, Ferraro’s continues to deliver classic Italian favorites that keep locals coming back for more.

With dark lighting, red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and a no-nonsense yet friendly wait staff, Ferraro’s has a distinctly midcentury pasta joint feel. The menu suits its old-school surroundings: spaghetti and meatballs; baked pastas; parmigianas, marsalas and their ilk; pizza and calzone — all offered in a variety of sauces and meats. The wine list isn’t huge (there are about a dozen options) or exciting, but there’s something about the vintage style that makes me content with a glass of house chianti. If you crave something more upscale, you can always bring your own for a reasonable $10 corkage fee.

For a recent trip, I came with my family of four to try some old favorites. I knew that I would not need an appetizer . . . but I couldn’t resist an order of sautéed mushrooms, with several small creminis cooked to perfection in a delicious, garlicky wine sauce. A person could make a meal out of these, a basket of garlic bread and some vino. But you don’t come to Ferraro’s simply for appetizers.

Our entrees included soup or salad, so we had the opportunity to enjoy both the minestrone soup and Sam’s Salad, Ferraro’s version of a classic antipasto salad (with garbanzo beans, cheese and salami — a meal in itself). Both were pretty good, but at Ferraro’s, the stars of the show are always the rich pastas and classic Italian meat dishes.

Craving baked pasta, I ordered the cannelloni, filled with ground sausage and spinach. It offered the perfect balance of leafy green to meat stuffed into a crepe topped with a rich meat sauce and loads of cheese. Delicioso.

My husband’s chicken parmigiana was also smothered in sauce and topped with a thick blanket of melted cheese (typical of this restaurant), so some digging was required. But once he reached its “heart,” he was duly impressed. The thickly breaded chicken breast was tender and juicy, although a higher meat-to-sauce ratio might have been desirable. The large, rich entree left no room for the side of spaghetti (included with most meat dishes), but it made a tasty lunch the following day.

Our 12- and 9-year-olds shared a medium pizza — half pepperoni, half sausage and mushroom — and gave it four thumbs up. Yeah, you kind of wish you had some scissors to cut the strings of cheese that ooze up with every slice . . . but you can’t argue with taste, and the hungry boys made short work of the pie.

A few words of advice for any who haven’t yet sampled Ferraro’s delectable dishes. Bring an appetite because the portions are large. Save some room in the fridge because you will thoroughly enjoy the leftovers. Expect lots of sauce and cheese. Ferraro’s has a loyal following, so get there early (even on a weeknight) to beat the crowds — or call ahead and take advantage of the to-go service (efficiently handled at a separate window).

But most of all, bring your favorite people. Sitting down to a big meal at Ferraro’s, with its simple, down-home, warm atmosphere, is the epitome of family dining. That and the satisfying food are the secrets to this decades-old restaurant’s appeal, success and longevity. You won’t leave hungry, and you won’t be disappointed. Si mangia!