Dining and Imbibing in the Conejo Valley

By Don Sonderling

No matter where you go on the Central Coast, this region is always ready to serve up new surprises. Among our favorite new discoveries are the enticing, creative restaurants in the eastern portion of 
Ventura County. Often referred to as the Conejo Valley or simply East County by locals, this enclave has been making a name for 
itself amongst food and wine enthusiasts. Here are a few we love.

No matter where you go on the Central Coast, this region is always ready to serve up new surprises. Among our favorite new discoveries are the enticing, creative restaurants in the eastern portion of 
Ventura County. Often referred to as the Conejo Valley or simply East County by locals, this enclave has been making a name for 
itself amongst food and wine enthusiasts. Here are a few we love.

Casa Nostra Ristorante
Casa Nostra Ristorante is located where you would least expect to find an inviting restaurant — 
in a somewhat obscure Westlake Village business park. When you enter the parking lot, just look for the flags! Then, get ready to enjoy an evening
of classic Italian fare in a welcoming, friendly, relaxing atmosphere. If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because there are a few other locations around 
Southern California.
There is an elegant dining area inside, but outside, on the spacious patio area, is where the true Italian spirit and magic happen. Sitting under the stars, surrounded by twinkling lights, sipping a Prosecco as you peruse the menu … it all creates an ambiance of perfection and romance.

Photo courtesy Casa Nostra Casa Nostra’s Agnello arrosto.

The inspired Italian menu has ample options, and features freshly sourced, house-made, and authentic Italian imported items. Consider starting with the Fritto Di Casa Nostra for the table. This assortment of calamari and crunchy vegetables is lightly and perfectly fried (NOT oily) and served with marinara sauce. I have to admit, for an entrée, I had a tough time ordering anything except the Tortellini di Gamberetti. The pasta, stuffed with shrimp, is served with a vodka pink sauce and jumbo crab (and is amazing!). Of course, I did sample my wife’s Osso Bucco di Maiale, a 24-hour braised pork shank that simply falls off the bone into your mouth.
Of course, every Italian meal (heck, every meal) is enhanced by wine. Order off their wine list or bring your own bottle. And note that Casa Nostra has no corkage fee Sunday through Thursday nights!
For a primo experience, Casa Nostra is a go-to destination, whether for a casual dinner with friends, a special celebration, or just to have an intimate, romantic dinner with that special person in your life.

Casa Nostra Ristorante is located at 717 Lakefield Rd. #H, Westlake Village. For reservations and more, see casanostrala.com/westlake-village.

Made In Italy
Made In Italy is another hidden gem you may drive right past if you didn’t know to look for it across the street from the Thousand Oaks Auto Mall. There, you will find chef-owner Antonio Sessa and his chef-partner/wife, Giana, bringing a fresh, creative, authentic Italian food experience.

Chef Antonio was born in Italy and grew up very much immersed in that food culture. He earned his culinary degree and then worked at a trattoria in Florence, where he perfected his craft. Moving to the United States, he found his way to Los Angeles, becoming a private chef to the stars. But his dream was always to open his own, true Italian eatery. Chef Giana, a second-generation Italian, grew up smelling, eating, and cooking Italian fare alongside her grandmother and father. After earning her degree from Le Cordon Bleu, Giana also worked in a restaurant in Florence then found her way to California, where she met Antonio. Together, their passion for creating genuine Italian food — and sharing it with others — 
was realized when they opened their restaurant, Made In Italy, 
in 2019.

This is a scratch kitchen. The freshest of ingredients are used, and dishes are made daily. Fruits and vegetables come locally from organic growers; the meats are free-range sourced. As you look over the menu, be prepared to be transported to an authentic Italian cucina, 
right here on the Central Coast. Many of the recipes are handed down from generations and are meant to be enjoyed in their original form. Don’t overlook the impressive, select wine list, focusing on excellent Italian varietals. You’ll find wines that will pair perfectly with your meal.

Chef Antonio, of Made In Italy. Photo courtesy Made In Italy

Now, let’s talk about the pizza! Chef Antonio is recognized as a master pizza chef through the Scuola Nazionale Maestri Pizzaioli Academy in Italy. Certified in Neapolitan-style and gluten-free pizza, Antonio is also a certified pizza instructor. Pizza is a must when you come to Made In Italy, so do yourself a favor on arrival and order one for the table. As you decide what to order, you can nibble on the light, melt-in-your-mouth, homemade focaccia. It was truly the most memorable focaccia we’ve ever had.

To top off the night, we enjoyed the tiramisu and ricotta cheesecake. If you love gelato, the house-made chocolate gelato is creamy and dreamy! But don’t overlook 
the sorbet. We loved the passion fruit sorbet, which simply bursts with flavors of the tropics. Want to bring the Made In Italy goodness home with you? With their portable pizza oven, Antonio and Giana will make your home gathering extra special with 
the same fresh, quality, Neapolitan-inspired pizza right 
in your backyard!

Made In Italy is located at 3825 E Thousand Oaks Blvd. Unit F, Westlake Village. For reservations and more, see madeinitalybistro.com.

Pearl District Restaurant 
and Bar
Pearl District Restaurant and Bar in the Westlake Plaza Shopping Center is easy to find, and a food lover’s dream come true. Owner Peyman Afshar and Chef Richie DeMane have been a respected food duo in the area for more than 20 years, starting with Leila’s Restaurant in Oak Park Pearl District. Pearl District garners the same reputation and community support that Leila’s did. The restaurant is named after an area in Afshar’s hometown of Portland, OR. It’s an area that re-invented itself to become a go-to hub for fine dining, featuring eclectic and creative food experiences. That is what you will enjoy at this Westlake Village dining destination.

Begin with an innovative artisan cocktail, a California craft beer, or choose from the excellent and thoughtful wine list — which includes several small production, handcrafted California wines (plus many of my favorite Paso Robles producers). Then, sit back and peruse the menu, as you watch artfully created mouthwatering dishes parade past you to other tables. Dining at The Pearl District is a gastronomic event, melding together the artistry of presentation, aromas, and flavors to excite your palate. I’ve been dining at Leila’s and then Pearl District for about 20 years. My favorites dishes, you ask? Pretty much everything. However, the lobster tempura appetizer, braised short ribs, sautéed wild mushroom, and the other appetizers are some notables. And, when available, the heirloom tomato, avocado stack is a must!

Photo courtesy Pearl District The patio at Pearl District.

As for a main course, if you don’t have any particular food restrictions, close your eyes, throw a dart, and order whatever it lands on. You will not be disappointed. The freshest of ingredients, the highest quality meats, and locally sourced vegetables are used. What Chef Richie does is create food art that teases your senses. Taking your first bite, close your eyes while savoring the experience.

Don’t forget to save room for dessert! You will say “wunderbar” as you delve into the Wonder Bar, but you may want to try the fresh cobbler of the day, or the bittersweet chocolate bread pudding, or — okay, you get the picture. Pearl District is a dining event the first and every time you experience it.

Pearl District Restaurant and Bar is located at 982 S Westlake Blvd #8, Westlake Village. For reservations and more, visit pearldistrictrestaurant.com.

Tarantula Hill Brewing Co.
Small lot, hand-crafted specialty beers have taken off over the last several years across the country, and East County Conejo Valley is no exception. It has an assortment of brew pubs offering excellent craft beers as well as casual (and delicious) eats.

Tarantula Hill Brewing Co. is unusual in the universe of brew pubs, and one you won’t want to miss. Forget your preconceived notions; at Tarantula Hill, you will have a fun time, a great assortment of beers, tasty pub food consisting of burgers, sandwiches, wings, salads, tacos, pizza out of their pizza oven, and some of the best ice cream ever, from the owner’s family recipes. You may also find entertainment and special events (check their website for the schedule).

Photo courtesy Tarantula Hil Tarantula Hill’s spacious indoor dining spaces offer lots of natural light.

Tarantula Hill is both kid and pet-friendly! They offer a select kid’s menu and four-legged friend treats, as well! However, it’s the adult menu that will make you salivate.

But let’s get to the main event: the beers! Sporting about two dozen brews on tap, you will be hard-pressed to choose just one, so you’ll be coming back, probably a lot. No matter your taste in beer, you’ll find what you’re looking for here. There is a great selection of IPAs, in addition to pilsner, ale, porter, lager, hard seltzer, hard kombucha, and more. And while you are studying the menu, you’ll chuckle at some of the creative names, such as Jakalope Hoppy Pilsner, RxPils, What the Fruit, and Knott Your Berry Farm.

Of course, beer is made to go with food, and there is no shortage of that at Tarantula Hill! Pizzas come fresh from their wood-fired pizza oven and are Neapolitan-style. They use house-made dough, and fresh, mostly locally-sourced ingredients. Their Cubano sandwich was to die for, and I can’t wait to go back to try one of their many burgers, tacos, salads, or a charcuterie board. At Tarantula Hill, it’s easy to become a regular.

Once done, you’ll want to sample some (eventually all) of the many ice cream flavors made from the freshest ingredients. The flavors are from the owner’s father, who had a creamery in Hawaii! This is the place to go for beer-food-ice cream fun and gathering.

Tarantula Hill Brewing Co. is located at 244 E Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. For the menu, schedule of events and more, visit tarantulahillbrewingco.com.

Alma Sol Winery
Fun, energetic, vivacious, friendly, and really good wine — 
that just about sums up the Alma Sol Winery tasting 
room experience.

Winemaker John Shaw and wife, Lisa, became enamored with Paso Robles, its people, and its wines about 20 years ago. As they learned more about the region, the pair eventually decided to start making their own wine, about a decade later. Sourcing from personally selected, well-regarded Paso vineyards — in addition to using fruit from their estate Cuevas vineyard – John focuses mostly on Bordeaux single varietals and blends.

John’s enthusiasm is contagious as he pours you through the lineup of Alma Sol wines while explaining his winemaking process and philosophy. The wines are well-balanced, generally aged between 24 and 32 months, and upon release, are quite drinkable.

Photo courtesy Alma Sol Alma Sol’s tasting room.

Enjoy a selection of refined wines (especially the Cabernet Franc) while making new friends at Alma Sol’s tasting room, which is situated in the heart of Thousand Oaks. Whether you are new to wine or an experienced oenophile, you will be impressed by and enjoy these wines.

Alma Sol Winery is located at 1321 E Thousand Oaks Blvd. #108, Thousand Oaks, in the Sunland Vintage Winery tasting room. For more information and reservations (which are preferred), visit almasolwinery.com.

Explore, enjoy, and savor the many delectable food, drink, and new friend-making experiences in the Conejo Valley, right off California 101 Highway, El Camino Real (the Royal Road). You’ll be glad you did.

Author Don Sonderling is a freelance writer covering California’s Wine Country lifestyle and culture, from the Central Coast up through the Napa Valley and Sonoma. He may be reached at donsonderling@gmail.com.