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
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
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
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