PICTURED: Eggplant Parmesan sandwich with sides of green salad and antipasto. Photo by Dane Edmondson

Boccali’s Pizza and Pasta
3277 Ojai-Santa Paula Road, Ojai

If there’s one constant I’ve observed it’s that nostalgia sells. It can be that impulse buy of your favorite childhood candy at the supermarket checkout or a late-night shopping spree on stockx for some Air Jordan IVs. I, too, am a hapless fool when it comes to campy keepsakes of days past. So when I took in the decor at Boccali’s in Ojai it was like driving 88 mph in a certain Delorean.

Red and white checkered tablecloths. Jugs of vino encased in straw baskets. Braids of garlic pinned to the wall. Boccali’s ambiance harkens back to a time when Italian restaurants offered a thematic opportunity to experience the culture. It was a dining experience unto itself.

Spinach lasagna and a glass of Boccali’s own Rustic Red Blend. Photo by Dane Edmondson

But then came the whispers in the dark of a new miracle diet, one that was “guaranteed” to melt away fat like a lit candle in the summer sun. The limelight for Dr. Atkins’ miracle diet was thankfully short lived, but not before it instilled sufficient amounts of carbophobia, and contributed to many of my favorite trattorias having to shut their doors.

For that very reason I immensely appreciate the tradition to which Boccali’s owners and staff steadfastly hold. This was brightly on display from the beginning of my visit to the flagship location at the very end of Ojai Avenue, as my server, Zack, was both friendly and well versed, as he had been an employee for several years.

Though it was only high noon, I felt it almost insulting not to experience a glass of Boccali’s own award-winning wine. Landing on the Rustic Red Blend, a melange of cabernet, syrah and zinfandel, I was well rewarded as the jovial notes of blackberry and citrus blossom made for a velvety delight. Pairing this libation with my first dish, the eggplant Parmesan sandwich, proved to be another victory.

Piping hot out of the oven and piled high, this sandwich is the best of its kind, at least that I’ve found so far in VC. A pillowy French roll provides a bed for breaded eggplant, mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce, intermittently stacked in a generous heap. The side dishes included both green salad and antipasto — a small detail, but one that didn’t go unnoticed.

Having previously been told of Boccali’s much-celebrated pizza, I decided to order an appetizer size to taste. Keeping the 1980s vibe alive, I went traditional by choosing a pepperoni and mushroom topping. I did inquire about crust options (which I urge everyone to do) and, to my good fortune, they offered my go-to thin crust. The pizza was basic by design, forgoing fancy frills for a focused and fresh philosophy, one ever-present in Italian cuisine. Crispy and light with a comfortingly familiar flavor spectrum, the pie was a worthy addition. I did, however, break down and order a sacrilegious side of ranch for dipping, which I always think will evoke an apparitional pinch from my Nona.

Pepperoni and mushroom pizza on thin crust. Photo by Dane Edmondson

My final stroll down memory lane led me to the spinach lasagna. Presented in a hot casserole dish, this take on a classic is indeed just that, classic. Upon cutting into the hefty masterpiece, my heart skipped for reasons other than my AFib, as the rich chunks of ricotta cheese and spinach did their damnedest to mimic Nona’s version I so lovingly recall. The oregano-centric marinara sauce was another hit of nostalgia, recounting the fragrant, herb-laden kitchens of my youth. This dish not only looked and tasted homemade, most importantly, it felt homemade.

My gluttony rendered me useless in the dessert department, even as the famous seasonal strawberry shortcake loomed temptingly at the next table over. Boccali’s also boasts expansive patio dining and an inviting lawn for the little ones to run around, which seasonally plays host to festive events. Plus, every October, the owners orchestrate a pumpkin patch complete with a haunted hayride through the cornfields, which is a must-do for families.