When you find a server who is so enthusiastic about the food, so passionate about the menu, so descriptive in his explanations, well, you just have to take his lead.
That was our experience at Al Forno, a restaurant tucked away behind a charming brick arch near downtown Providence, Rhode Island. As we took the stairs to its second level we could already catch the aroma of Italian spices. Our experience had begun.
It continued at the table, as unobtrusive wait staff delivered appetizers of Grilled Pizza with Roasted Eggplant, Antipasto, Warm Grilled Gorgonzola Stuffed Dates, and Crispy Cod Cakes. That was followed by a Baked Pasta with Tomato, Cream and Five Cheeses that was truly one of the more memorable pastas in a long pasta-tasting life. And we hadn’t even hit the entrees yet.
Our table ordered a variety, given our propensity for sharing, and we had fun bartering over who would get what. I claimed the Spicy Clam Roast, after receiving an eloquent explanation of how the longnecked clams are served in their shells with a spicy sausage and a tomato-based sauce poured over each clam—almost as though it was a reverent homage to a seafood god. Others went for the Wood-Roasted Duck Breast, with an orange scented Sicilian couscous . . . the Bread Gnocchi with Spicy Sausage . . . the evening special called a Dirty Steak . . . the Wood-Grilled Chicken Paillard “Agro Dolce” . . . and the Wood-Roasted Hot Italian Sausages and Grapes. All of the dishes offered flavor combinations that were deliciously unexpected.
In fact, at the risk of over-analyzing, our primary server happily told us that the menu was “not counterintuitive.” Now, counterintuitive, to me, means that the idea or product is something that you wouldn’t believe based on your past experiences or feelings. In this case, I guess it means that we can believe what we taste—and it’s as good as it looks, smells, and, yes, tastes.
Those warm dates, for example, were served with a crunchy celery salad with warm pears. The cod cakes were topped with avocado. And the made-to-order desserts were just as unusual. Tip: get the Chocolate Bread Pudding, which is made with brioche and tastes as light as any souffle. That is, unless you want the fun cookie tray, or the Native Pear and Walnut Crisp Tart, which goes great with a scoop of their coconut ice cream.
The restaurant itself is pleasantly noisy, with a nice outside view of the bridge and an inside view of white linen, clinking glasses, and people in obvious enjoyment of their dining experience.
If you are in Providence, check it out. If not, you can experience at least some of the joys through their cookbooks, Cucina Simpatica and On Top of Spaghetti, both by Johanne Killeen and George Germon (and both available at www.alforno.com).
When you order, tell them The Food Channel (and its friends at nearby Johnson & Wales University) sent you.
Check out our review of the Al Forno group’s new restaurant, Tini.