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Italian soul food

A staff from some of the best restaurants in Los Angeles brings its flair to Paso Robles



PROPRIETORS :  Carole and Santos MacDonal set the standard for Italian fare in Paso Robles, thanks to such delights as house-made fresh beet pasta fonduta. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PROPRIETORS : Carole and Santos MacDonal set the standard for Italian fare in Paso Robles, thanks to such delights as house-made fresh beet pasta fonduta.
Everyone loves classic Italian cuisine; whether served in a setting called trattoria, pizzeria, or ristorante. Restaurants offering such fare flourish in every small town and city in America. SLO County certainly has more than its fair share of Italian eateries, most of them upscale: Buona Tavola, Café Roma, Giuseppe’s, Rosa’s, and their off-shoots. Yet it seems there is room for a newcomer in Paso Robles, namely Il Cortile, Italian for “the courtyard.”

Open barely two months, this cozy, romantic dining room with its welcoming patio out front has been enthusiastically received by Paso Roblans and tourists alike. Tourists find it on and through local hotels that recommend it. And the neighbors must be impressed because they’re returning frequently to sample more of chef Santos MacDonal’s Southern Italian cuisine. After enjoying lunch and dinner there, I can understand why Il Cortile so quickly became a local favorite. 

I enjoyed my first lunch there with my husband, Dan, and we were impressed by the entire experience: the food, the comfortable ambiance, and the expert service.

We started by sharing the insalata mista con salmone, which Dan normally prefers rare but this dish was quite unusual. The chef had taken the salmon filet and cut it into three thin slices, then sautéed it in a hot pan to give it a crispy outer edge. Served over a salad of mixed greens with an intense and addictive balsamic vinaigrette, we ate every morsel and wished we had each ordered our own. It was a good thing we shared—we had a lot of good food yet to come.

Dan chose the homemade lasagna, which is made fresh daily. It’s an elegant version, atypical to the overly sauced variety laden with ground beef. Dan was willing to share only a couple of bites with me. But I was enjoying that day’s special: spaghetti frutti di mare with calamari, prawns, and mussels in a silky tomato sauce. We enjoyed our meal with the Massolino 2007 Dolcetto d’ Alba ($39). Our server, Alexis, explained the tiramisu was a specialty of Carole MacDonal, the chef’s wife who learned to make it in Italy. Naturally, we were compelled to try it. The delicate confection, light as air, was rich in flavor. We finished it off with a cup of JoeBella espresso. Not only did I walk away impressed by lunch, I was eager to return.

 Il Cortile is owned and managed by chef Santos MacDonal and partner Carole. The passionate, enthusiastic couple are as excited about their new restaurant as they are about their relatively new marriage. Previously from Los Angeles, Carole is Executive in Charge of Production for the hit TV reality series, “The Biggest Loser.” She said the show’s 10th season begins this spring. She still commutes to L.A. weekly, but said she can usually do her work from her home in Paso Robles.

 The passionate chef Santos is involved in every detail at Il Cortile: he shops the farmers’ markets; he creates the daily menu and specials, from the antipasti, primi, and secondi courses to the desserts; and cooks with his kitchen team. Santos noted: “I like to be creative.” You can usually see him through the dining room window into the kitchen. His brother Jorge MacDonal is sous chef. He and another experienced chef, Paolo Mattei, worked with Santos in several L.A. restaurants. They moved to Paso to help get Il Cortile started. Santos also hired local cooks for his team. “We have people who are very serious about what they are doing.”

Carole explained that she usually accompanies Santos to the Templeton Farmer’s Market on Wednesday. “We walk through first to see what everyone is offering while he ponders the possibilities for his menu. Then we go back through the market and Santos already knows what he wants to buy,” Carole said proudly. “He’s very spontaneous and puts the menu together based on what’s fresh in the market.”

 A Honduran native, chef Santos spent the last 15 years working in L.A.’s notable Italian restaurants, including: Il Ristorante di Giorgio Baldi, Bridge, and Via Veneto in Santa Monica, the latter where he met Carole. “We were married five years ago because of his food,” said Carole, explaining she lived around the corner from Via Veneto. “I dined there frequently and often went alone. I loved his truffle risotto in winter and a million other dishes in summer. One day the owners introduced Santos to me. We  dated once and stayed together ever since, all because of truffles,” she laughed. “We were destined to be together.” A one-year delay in their honeymoon plans brought them to Paso Robles, and they returned often. Three years ago they bought a house there and began looking for a site to build their dream restaurant. They took their time, however, waiting for the right time and right space.

- IT’S A NORTH COUNTY PLEASURE:  Il Cortile is located at 608 12th St., Paso Robles. For more information, call - 226-0300 or see -
  • IT’S A NORTH COUNTY PLEASURE: Il Cortile is located at 608 12th St., Paso Robles. For more information, call 226-0300 or see
When Dan and I returned for dinner, we were impressed again by chef Santos’ creative and delicious dishes. We started with the crostini con burrata with caramelized shallots, topped with crispy pancetta ($15). It was marvelous, better than any such dishes I’d experienced before.  Santos’ Mozzarella-based dishes are featured in a special section on the extensive menu. The pan-roasted quail stuffed with prosciutto and served with a red wine reduction ($15) was also fabulous, perfectly executed. We found the Ruffino 2006 Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale ($39) paired well with each dish we ordered.

 From the primi section, I chose the pappardelle al ragù di Cinghiale ($19), housemade wide noodles with a ragù of wild boar and porcini mushrooms. Carole told me Santos is very particular about the boar and had gone to great lengths to find the best source for it. The meltingly tender meat and mushrooms created a perfect harmony with the fresh noodles. Dan, typically, chose from the secondi section, filetto di salmon
($25) cooked perfectly rare as ordered. It came with delicious creamy potatoes and Swiss chard with onions and tomatoes. Although we planned to skip dessert, the chef sent over his housemade panna cotta with strawberry sauce and three small custard-filled canolli. It was a luscious treat and great finish after a wonderful dinner.

 We met a lovely local couple there, Christopher and Marie Duenow, and heard her exclaim, “OMG, this is so good I want to lick the plate.” We laughed and told her we felt the same about Santo’s cuisine.

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