Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hot off the 'Oven' Presses: Al Forno Impresses

For nearly thirty years (January 2, 2010 will mark its three-decade anniversary), Al Forno in Providence, RI has served up some of Rhode Island’s finest Italian fare. The restaurant’s primary claim to fame, however, is its reputation as the original home of grilled pizza, created by husband-wife/chef-owner tandem Johanne Killeen and George Germon. Although furtively tucked away in a slightly remote waterfront location along South Main Street, Al Forno’s simple renditions of Italian food with a twist are difficult to miss.

Al Forno’s ambience, like its cuisine, is simple yet elegant. Although its interior extends to two levels (the second floor decked with stone tiles, bricks, mirrors, and wood, while the first floor is splashed with ivory and suspended corn stocks from the ceiling), the limited number of tables and their proximity to one another create the perfect romantic setting (one in which, I’m sure, many a weddings proposals have been popped). A line begins to form outside the restaurant as early as 5:30: apparently, this establishment is recession-proof. Or, perhaps, customers are lured by the intoxicating aromas emanating from the wood-burning ovens and grills over charcoal fires. Think Lady and the Tramp, particularly the classic scene in which the two dogs share the spaghetti strand and a kiss. There’s amore in the air at Al Forno. Our only minor quibble upon arrival: where to find the maitre’ d? After going on a scavenger hunt from the top floor to the bottom, we finally find the affable gentleman who promptly seats us.

Appetizers range from the famed grilled pizza margarita (or for the most daring type, try one cooked with sweet pumpkin) to grilled cod cakes with smashed avocado. While we’re initially disappointed in the owners’ lack of flexibility in terms of accommodating my wife’s dairy allergy when our request to have half the grilled pizza prepared with no cheese is rebuffed, I also admire them for sticking to their gourmet guns. After all, this pie is their piece-de-resistance, their claim to fame. What if Leonardo da Vinci removed the semblance of a smile from his masterpiece painting, Mona Lisa. The artist would never be able to view his art in the same way once it has been desecrated. To the initial observer’s eye, this might be viewed as stubborness verging upon arrogance, but given further consideration, Killeen and Germon’s decision is about maintaining the purity of their culinary vision. Al Forno makes amends by serving a generous portion of some of the most tender shreds of beef carpaccio we’ve tasted, beautifully presented with arugula salad and a not-too-heavy herb aoili reduction.

We reluctantly pass on the pastas – partially due to my wife’s allergy, partially because we’re saving room for dessert – though the selections sound wonderfully appealing. Take, for instance, shells baked with pumpkin, cream, pancetta and five cheeses, or the gnocci with bread crumbs, or linguine with creamy egg, duck bacon, and pea tendrils. We proceed to the less heavy wood-grilled selections, which include my wife’s succulent honey-glazed duck leg and grilled sausage. The sausage could stand on its own as a dish, packing a mild spiciness that is perfectly balanced by a wonderfully creative side of candied banana peppers. The pheasant is perfectly cooked, and the kitchen performs a small miracle by making even the less glamorous components of this dish shine, such as roasted broccoli and pomme frites with a tangy, addictive spicy catsup sauce. I typically shy away from inhaling aromas off of the plate – the only other time in recent memory was over a spiced lamb dish at Charlestown’s Tangierino – but those from my wood-roasted gorgonzola stuffed veal cutlets were potent enough to grab my nostrils’ attention. The tender veal is wrapped in wood-roasted homemade bacon – and who doesn’t like bacon? I certainly don’t, when it’s tragically over- or undercooked, charred to a crisp or limp like a dead flower. This rendition is far superior: think gourmet pigs in a smoked blanket. The bacon is unbelievably meaty and full of flavor. Gorgonzola oozes out and is perfect for sopping up the meat. While accompanying leeks and wild mushrooms were more of an afterthought, the pears are a sweet complement to the sourness of the cheese.

As for the house-made desserts, several of which are prepared for two, the number of and variety of selections was mind-boggling. Should we go for the grand cookie finale, toasted coconut ice cream, or warm chocolate filled crepes? Once again, due to my wife’s allergy (one limiting factor to this restaurant is that it is not lactose-friendly), we opt for the native pear and walnut tart. This concoction may very well be the most delectable we’ve ever sampled. The piping hot fruity insides, both fresh and refreshing while thankfully not overly sweet, are perfectly cooked into a slightly wood-charred crust. Take my word when I say that this signature dish puts any of your grandmother’s best pies to shame, one that warrants many returns to Al Forno, if not to sample several other varieties of tarts.

Service is exceptional. Our server is not only amiable and extremely knowledgeable of the menu, but also earns our admiration by deeply apologizing for the aforementioned grilled pizza snafu. Bread baskets and water glasses are promptly refilled by an efficient wait staff.

An evening at Al Forno is a special occasion and the prices reflect this. Appetizers average $15-20, pastas around $20, wood-grilled entrees between $25-32, and desserts (usually for 2) at $20. But for generous portions of the highest quality (a strong argument can be made that given such large quantities of food and the corresponding price points, Al Forno may be best enjoyed with large parties/ a la family style), exceptional service, and a charming, Old World atmosphere, it’s worth the splurge. Al Forno – Italian for ‘off the stove’ – stokes Paul’s Palate’s appetite. Put that on your foodie Hot Stove.