Had I thought more about the name, it probably would have been easier to spot Il Balcone up on the second floor of a mini shopping mall. The sign is a bit deceiving--looking more like one for a takeout pizza parlor than this attractive, yet casual, restaurant.
Tantalizing aromas greet you at the door of the little trattoria. Standing just inside it one evening while waiting for a table, I was impressed by how many people entered, took a sniff and commented favorably. Even better, the food lives up to your expectations.
The 10 or so tables, give or take how they are arranged, have dark green and white linen under glass tops. Tiny vases of silk flowers, dark bentwood chairs, a few wine racks and bits of art contrast with the basically white room.
Il Balcone may not have the most innovative menu, but it certainly shows some sparks of creativity. In addition to the regular salads, soups, pizzas and pasta, they offer several daily specials. The same menu is served at lunch and dinner.
Their minestrone soup was so packed with flavor that we couldn't resist eating every bite, even though we had consciously limited ourselves to one shared bowl, thinking of the entrees still to come. Sprinkled with Parmesan cheese, the soup is hearty enough to be a complete meal accompanied by the complementary bread and a glass of wine. Well, at least a hearty lunch.
Recommended pizzas include the speciale with broccoli, zucchini, mushrooms, spinach, roasted pepper and carrots; and the pizza quattro stagioni with artichokes, prosciutto, black olives and zucchini. Crusts are thin and crispy.
All pastas are available with a choice of sauces. A penne alla gorgonzola special one evening was outstanding-- al dente pasta sauced by the light, buttery smoothness, yet characteristic pungency of the cheese. Pesto and porcini sauces were both judged very good. The house salad--a combination of lettuce, sliced tomato, shredded carrot and zucchini with a vinegar and oil dressing and sprinkling of pine nuts--is included with any pasta order.
Another nightly special, New York steak battuta, was pounded thin and sauteed in olive oil with garlic, rosemary and Italian red pepper. It was served with pasta and beautifully cooked broccoli, and received favorable reviews.
House wines are Castelli Romani, a medium dry white and a light Chianti-style red (which I preferred). The regular wine card includes 11 Italian and Californian whites and a dozen Italian and Californian reds, along with one rose and one sparkling selection. They also offer beer, soft drinks, coffee, espresso and cappuccino.
Don't miss their variation on the Northern Italian dessert, tirami su. The combination of espresso-soaked lady finger-type Italian biscuits, zabaglione and whipped cream, dusted with bittersweet chocolate, is so light and delicious that even one guest who seldom eats desserts enjoyed several bites.
There's little negative to say about this popular restaurant. Pine nuts added to the dinner salad are a nice touch, but were charred rather than toasted on one occasion.
On weeknights, the Italian co-owners typically solo as host/waiter (they are usually both there on Thursday, Friday and Saturday). With assistance from two busboys and a trio of cooks, they usually do an amazing job not only of giving good service, but finding time to make you feel like a welcome guest. The system doesn't always run smoothly, but the generous portions and reasonable prices make it easier to accept any delays or having to wave one of them down.
The most desirable tables are those away from the windows and door, as well as any anxious eyes of those waiting for your seat. Parking and tables are at a premium at peak hours, so you may want to time visits accordingly. The no-reservation policy always makes me grumble, but it certainly doesn't keep many people away.
Il Balcone, 15826 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 788-9068. Lunch served Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Visa and MasterCard accepted. No reservations. Lot and street parking. Entrees from $6.95 to $10.50.