In its three best-selling editions–published in 2006, 2008 and 2012–National Geographic’s “Passport to the Best” has enthralled, excited and educated connoisseurs of matters of taste across the globe. With top ten lists in dozens of categories studded with savvy tips and inspiring imagery, this wayfarer’s bible invigorates investigative yearnings for exotic travel, if for nothing else to confirm or refute the opinion of the authors. Still, when the “Passport to the Best” recognized Trattoria Mollie in Montecito, California as “one of the “Ten Best Destination & Special Restaurants in the World,” the honor was probably lost on much of the popular culture demographic.
Trattoria Mollie has instead garnered much more fame and acclaim courtesy of a rousing endorsement from media mogul Oprah Whitney than from any source. Oprah reportedly dined at the swank Montecito restaurant every day during the summer of 2006, most often–if not exclusively–enjoying an entree showcasing three turkey meatballs studded with raisins. It’s an entree she introduced to President Obama during his visit to Trattoria Mollie. So impressed was Oprah that she also introduced Chef Mollie Ahlstrand to the world on both her popular show and “O” magazine. As her annual “Oprah’s Favorite Things” episode consistently proved, an endorsement from Oprah carried significant weight.
Trattoria Mollie is the eponymous restaurant of an Ethiopian-born chef trained at some of the finest restaurants in and around Rome, including Arturo’s Aurelia Antica, a favorite restaurant of Pope (now saint) John Paul II. Preparing heavenly pasta dishes for the pontiff and for a phalanx of celebrity admirers isn’t necessarily what has earned Chef Mollie such a sterling reputation. Her grace and charm are on display every time she leaves the kitchen to mingle with diners. Swathed from head to toe in immaculate white, she employs ambassadorial skills in making sure her guests are happy. She may not visit for very long, but has such a high likeability quotient that you’re left with the impression that you met with beatific greatness.
Chef Mollie’s guiding principles seem to center around “fresh food prepared by hand” as you’ll be reminded by the wait schtick of a very well trained and amiable server staff. Mollie purchases many of her vegetables at local farmers’ markets and much of the seafood used at the restaurant is delivered fresh daily by professionals who fish the nearby coastal waters. You can observe Mollie and her staff in action as you walk into the restaurant. She’s a veritable whirling dervish of activity, simultaneously performing and guiding the preparation of incomparable Northern Italian cuisine. It’s why she earned the Five Diamond Silver Medallion Award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences.
The key word there is “hospitality.” It’s not every “celebrity” chef who leaves the comfortable confines of the kitchen to treat all guests as celebrities themselves. Heck, most celebrity chefs rarely even venture into their kitchens any more. Mollie’s staff embodies a “mia casa, tua casa” spirit in making you feel welcome and valued. We bantered with our Italian server as to Velveeta’s place on an Italian cheese platter and shared Fathers’ Day sentiments with another. What we appreciated most, however, was the wait staff’s loving treatment of Tim, our darling dachshund who dined with us.
You won’t be seated for long before a basket of bread arrives with a very utilitarian decanter holding both olive oil and Balsamic vinegar in one vessel. The housemade bread is a classic–pillowy soft on the inside with a slightly hard crust on the outside. It’s an ethereally light bread that soaks up olive oil and (or) Balsamic vinegar. The wait staff will gladly replenish it if (when is probably more appropriate) you finish it.
Trattoria Mollie’s simple menu belies the extraordinary preparation of some of the most sumptuous and extraordinary Italian food you’ll ever have. The dinner menu includes nine pizzas. Yes, pizza on an Italian fine-dining menu. Appetizers, soups and salads are simple too, a far cry from the melange of ingredient combinations other restaurants deploy seemingly to impress, not necessarily to harmonize well together. Daily specials warrant an attentive ear so you don’t miss out on something luscious.
We compromised on a simple appetizer of prosciutto and melon, thinly sliced cured ham from Parma, Italy served with fresh cantaloupe. The key to maximizing your enjoyment of this refreshing delight is to include a bit of each flavor component in each bite. Considering the prosciutto is whisper thin, but resilient, it’s a bit of a chore, but well worth the effort. Every ingredient is excellent on its own; together they sing. The melon, as fruits and vegetables in California tend to be, is fresh, sweet and juicy.
One of the consequences of the timing of our trip to California was that we missed out on the weekend special at Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho. We missed out on Joe’s life-altering pork ossobuco, an entree so wondrously prepared, it’s been known to cause rocket’s red glare, bombs bursting in air foodgasms. As such, ordering Trattoria Mollie’s Ossobuco Milanese was a no-brainer. Mollie’s rendition showcases a meaty veal shank prepared in a stew with prosciutto, onions, carrots, celery and rice cooked in a white wine sauce. It’s an amazing dish as rich and sumptuous as any ossobuco we’ve had, bringing to mind favorable comparisons with Joe’s version.
Mollie’s special of the evening, Lasagna Bolognese, showcased a sauce which has long been the bane of my dining experiences at Italian restaurants. In America, Bolognese sauce has become the generic name for a meat and tomato sauce. It’s been dumbed-down from the way it’s prepared in Italy. Every prior experience at Italian restaurants in America has left me disappointed and irked at how inauthentic and inferior Bolognese sauces are prepared. Fortunately Chef Mollie didn’t abandon her Italian training to suit American tastes.
The Bolognese sauce on the lasagna was absolutely fabulous–so much so that I probably took an unfairly profligate number of spoonfuls from Kim’s plate. We could never have imagined Lasagna Bolognese to be a superior entree to an Ossobuco entree, but it was! What made the Bolognese transformative were several elements. First, the sauce didn’t overwhelm us with tomatoes which, as intended, are a complementary ingredient to the meat, a lean ground beef coupled with high-quality pancetta. Secondly, the sauce may have been prepared with a bit of milk, the telltale signs being the more orange than red color of the sauce and the tenderness of the meat. Thirdly, the sauce was lightly seasoned. None of the aromatic spices–not even bay leave–were in evidence. Lastly, freshly grated authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano was used in perfect proportion to other ingredients. This is a dish about which we’ll dream for a long time.
After all the dishes have been picked up, a variety of delightful Italian cookies and biscotti are delivered to your table. They offer a textural and flavor-profile variety which makes them a perfect post-prandial treat, not that you should miss out on Trattoria Mollie’s desserts. Though the Dolci Fatti in Casa (housemade desserts) menu is tempting, for taste and textural contrast, you can’t beat the Formaggio Assortito, assorted Italian cheeses and fresh fruits. The cheeses are a wonderfully sensual delight with textures ranging from hard and crumbly to soft and light and flavors ranging from sharp and nutty to sweet and milky. The fruits–red and green grapes, strawberries and apples–provide a delicious contrast.
Trattoria Mollie is an experiential delight that will remind you what hospitality is all about while introducing you to some of the most magnificently prepared Italian food you’ll ever have.
1250 Coast Village Road
LATEST VISIT: 15 June 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Lasagna Bolognese, Osso Bucco, Prosciutto and Melon,