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Aruffo's Italian Cuisine - One of the "Village"

by Nick Anis

Although there are some great eateries in the Inland Empire it's not exactly known for its culinary delights.  Many, wrongly assume the only way to get a fine meal is to brave the traffic to the inner sanctums of metropolitan Los Angeles and Orange County.   One reason it's rare to find an exceptional eatery in this area is the demographics have been shifting like the sands. 

Endurance tells you quite a bit about a restaurant.  Aruffo's in Claremont (at the Village), 40 miles west of Los Angeles, is celebrating its 17th year in business. The restaurant's endurance and success are a direct result of the work of Chef (and co-owner) Tom Aruffo, a New York Culinary Institute graduate who has been around food all his life and Valerie, Tom's wife and business partner, who acts as Maitre'd and operations manager.

When Aruffo's Italian Cuisine opened back in 1986, Tom and Valerie (who was born and raised in Upland) were only 22-years-old.  Operating Aruffo's has been a large part of their adult lives.  Aruffo's is not one of those snooty over-priced "trendy" places with portions so small you need a 10x monocle to see them on your plate.  It's somewhat upscale, but you'll find the prices and portion sizes quite reasonable.  The lunch menu has most of the same dishes as dinner, but with lower prices and in some cases different portioning.  The lunch pastas and special salads portions are quite generous and about the best deal you can find for a healthy and delicious lunch.

Tom Aruffo is a gifted culinary artist.  One of Chef Tom's innovations is the bread he serves.  My friend, Ron Hodges, who publishes Restaurant Row has told me many times, serving good bread is absolutely essential for a fine Italian restaurant.  Ron would love Aruffo's because they serve the most distinctive and delicious garlic bread on the planet.  It's so good they named it and do quite a brisk business selling the bread for $2.50 (which looks beautiful and tastes even better) to patrons to take home.

Aruffo's Tuscany Style Garlic Bread is a homemade 16-ounce light sour dough rubbed on the outside with a magical mixture of fresh basil, oregano, garlic, sea-salt, a pinch of Italian dried crushed red chili peppers, and other Italian spices.  The bread is also topped with plump whole Italian tomatoes and Percorino Romano cheese.

The restaurant is open from 11am to 10pm seven days a week (call for late seating).  It's in the center of Claremont on Yale Avenue, in a historic seven-block area with ivy-clad buildings and eucalyptus tree-lined streets which is referred to as "The Village."  Claremont, a.k.a. Tree City, USA was founded in 1887, covers 13 square miles, has a population of 35,077, and is best known for its beautiful trees and prestigious universities.

When Aruffo's opened 17 years ago, Tom and Valerie did extensive remodeling of a dilapidated building in the heart of The Village, carving a diamond from the rough.  They commissioned a muralist from Washington State who adorned the walls with hand-painted murals, and they also hung original Italian posters from the late 1800s to mid 1900s.  At first, most of their customers were from out of the area, because there wasn't too much happening in the Village.  In fact, for years Aruffo's and Yiannis' were the only businesses to remain open after the sun went down.  But over time, Aruffo's business has been gaining momentum from the nearby universities and the village merchants. 

The Village, which is a breadstick's throw from the seven Claremont colleges, has also experienced an insurgence in interest from locals and tourists.  Besides Aruffo's Italian Cuisine, there is Yiannis Greek restaurant, Heroes bar and restaurant, Walter's Afghan restaurant, Danson Americ-Mex restaurant, Villages Grill 50's Style Diner, 42nd.Street Bagel, Some Crust Bakery, and others; there is also the Metrolink station.

The crowning jewel of the Village's eateries is Aruffo's, which offers many of the classic Italian dishes, and some of Chef Tom's original and unique specialties.  Besides 12 varieties of antipastos there are 50 entrees ranging from homemade pasta specialties (like hand rolled ravioli), to fowl, beef, veal, and seafood.  There are also 3 or 4 specials and 3 fresh catches daily.  In fact, all the fish Aruffo's serves is fresh.

We started our meal nibbling on the Aglio Arrostito, elephant garlic roasted tender with extra virgin olive oil, sun dried tomatoes, basil pestos, fresh Fior Di Latte Mozzarella cheese, and bruschetta toast while looking over the menu and wine list.

Aruffo's has quite a respectable wine list with about 100 bottles of California and Italian vintages, and a few French champagnes, from $10.95 on up.  Almost 50 different wines are offered by the glass for about $4.  

The restaurant has a cozy but casual atmosphere.  There is an indoor dinning for 150 at comfortable and roomy booths and tables adorned with fresh cut flowers.  Although the décor is very nice and the restaurant is air-conditioned, many opt to dine in front on the covered patio overlooking Yale Avenue, which fills up quickly when the weather is nice.

On the evening we were there we opted to dine inside, because it was cold and rainy.  While eyeing the menu, my companion, Brandon discovered the Parmigiana Di Melanzana, fresh eggplant sautéed with Roma tomatoes and fresh basil baked with melted Mozzarella cheese, $13.95.  Brandon is an eggplant connoisseur and he gave this dish glowing reviews of the flavor, texture and presentation.  "This is simply the best eggplant I have ever had," he said.   The eggplant and all the other entrées are served with soup or salad and Aruffo's Tuscany Style Garlic Bread. 

Although Aruffo's has quite extensive selections of entrées, they also serve a variety of delicious gourmet pizzas.  I decided to try a the Margarita Pizza ($8.95), which has fire roasted Roma tomatoes, fresh basil pesto, "Fior Di Latte" Mozzarella, and shards of Parmigiano cheese.  This pizza was positively outstanding! The crust was light and crispy, and, combined with the flavorful medley of the pesto, roasted tomatoes and Parmigiano, was positively orgasmic.

Ordinarily, I would have stopped ordering here, but I figured I would bring most of the pizza (which I hadn't tasted yet) home for my wife and two pizza-loving sons.  But, then I made a discovery.  Habitually on the prowl for good veal dishes, I happened to notice the five Vitello (veal) dishes on Aruffo's menu and I immediately became interested.  I decided to try the Alla Palma Rosa Scaloppine, tender milk-fed veal scaloppini with fresh mushrooms, Roma tomatoes, and French Cognac in a light cream sauce.  I wasn't sure about ordering this, because in spite of being a food writer, I'm not a big time mushroom person.  I found this distinctive and unique dish ($17.95) to be quite delicious.  The flavors were distinct, but not over-powering, and the veal was lean and tender and flavorful.

Another dish I would have liked to try (but didn't) was one of the house specialties: the Cioppino Del Pescatore, gulf shrimp, manila clams, eastern muscles, sea scallops, calamari, and Alaskan King crab steamed in virgin olive oil, roasted garlic, herbs, Roma tomatoes, and frascati served in a bed of hot, fresh linguine.  I decided to save this dish for my next visit.

Actually, Cioppino, a derivative of the Italian word meaning, "chopped fine" is not really an Italian dish; it's American, an excellent California fish stew.  Cioppino was quite a popular dish at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco in the early 1900s.  The locals were said to have made the rounds of the small fishing boats moored at the docks where they coaxed the fisherman to toss a few fish, shellfish, or other edible donated ingredients into the stew pot.  A fisherman with a good catch, good disposition, or both would toss in a fat fish, another might only toss in a small one, or a crab, and so on.  As the story goes, the chant was "Chip in!  Chip in!" and since most of the fisherman were of Italian decent - an "o" was added, thus the term, "Cioppino" was born.  There are quite a few variations of the original recipe. Gastronomy Restaurant Consortium's Market Street Oyster Bar in Salt Lake City (which I have been fortunate to visit and review) offers an awarding winning version.  Aruffo's differs in that no fish is used and the delicious ingredients are not odds and ends; rather they are premium Gulf shrimp, Manila clams, eastern muscles, sea scallops, calamari, and Alaskan King crab. 

The soups are all homemade from scratch, slow-simmered, and from Chef Tom's unique original recipes.  The bouillabaisse comes packed with fresh crustaceans and fish.  They serve a different soup each day like salmon or shrimp bisque, Stracciatella (an Italian wedding soup), sausage soup (made with homemade Italian sweet sausage and fresh chopped vegetables in a rich beef and chicken broth), and an incredible potato and garlic soup made with a cream base and adorned with chopped parsley and roasted garlic tips on top.

After our Agilio Arrostito (appetizer) was served, I didn't have any Cioppino, but our server surprised us by bringing some delightful Vongole alla Marinara, Manilla clams, steamed to perfection in a spicy tomato sauce with Frascati wine, virgin olive oil, and fresh garlic.  This aromatic dish has some crushed red pepper added to give it a little kick.  The clams look wonderful heaped on top of the linguini.  Be careful when you eat this one.  For openers, the pasta is steaming hot.  Another caveat is the delicious sauce can splash.  Use your linen napkin for a bib, in case you get carried away eating as I did; this way you won't get any on your clothes, also as I did.

The dessert tray is quite tempting.  Most of the desserts are made on premises.  One of Aruffo's signature desserts is the crème brule, which is made with blocks of Belgian chocolate, vanilla beans, eggs and cream.  They also prepare delicious lemon tarts made with Meyer lemons, and topped with fresh seasonal blueberries, blackberries or raspberries.  Another outstanding dessert is Aruffo's chocolate mousse, made with Belgian chocolate and wrapped in a paper-thin Belgian chocolate sleeve and topped with fresh raspberries.  The raspberry mousse is also encased in chocolate (white).  Cannoli, a traditional Italian dessert, is prepared with a crispy pastry shell, filled with fresh blended ricotta with chunks of chocolate, and dusted with powdered sugar.  Another dessert to die for is Aruffo's Tiramisu, a sweet puff pastry made with imported Mascarpone cheese blended with cream, and topped with freshly whipped cream, espresso liquor sauce, and some chocolate coffee beans.  They also serve New York style cheesecake, and homemade sorbetto and gelato.  The desserts are served with unique decorative saucing and chilled seasonal berries.

The staff is polished and professional and the service is above average; our server, Tarri has been there 8 years, and Anthony, the sous chef, who cooked our meal, has been there 11 years.  The waiters are attentive but not underfoot, and your meal comes the way you ordered it, even if you have asked for a variation in the standard recipe.

Aruffo's Italian Restaurant, 126 Yale Avenue, Claremont, Phone: 909-624-9624, Fax: 909-931-0046.  Open seven days a week, from 11:00am to 10:00pm (call for late seating).  1/2 mile north of the 10 freeway at the Indian Hill exit.

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Nick Anis is a food, wine, and travel and technology writer with 24 books in print. Nick’s beats include snow and water sports, and vacation destinations. Nick can be reached by email at: nickanis@aol.com.

 

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