This review was written for my food writing class at JWU. A bit of editing still needs to be done (750 word limit....blargggg) but i figured i'd post it for you guys here at chow.
Al Forno: Is It Still Worth the Money?
By James Mark
Located on 577 South Main Street no foodie in Providence has not heard of Al Forno, and few do not have an opinion of the place. Once heralded as the only restaurant worth going to in Providence (a time long past, thank goodness), many feel the location is only riding the coattails of its former success. Having had one of the better meals in my life there just a few years ago, I was curious about the lambasting that Al Forno usually receives at the hands of critics and the public. Determined to find out if Al Forno was still worth the money, I recruited a dining companion down to the harbor.
Serving a cuisine based around the styles of Italy and Provence with heavy influences of local products, the restaurant was the hottest place in Providence and winner of numerous national and international awards. Some say that the passing years, along with the chef/proprietors taking a multi year sabbatical has led to a decline in quality both from the front of house and in the food.
My companion and I arrived around eight thirty on a Thursday night to a packed house and full parking lot. Finding a spot on the street we rushed ourselves in, expecting one of Al Forno's infamously long waits (the restaurant does not take reservations). We were immediately greeted by a friendly server and to our pleasant surprise seated at once on the second level of the restaurant.
While the decor of the lower level of Al Forno is nothing spectacular, the upper level is one of the most romantic dining rooms in the city. Recessed lighting sets off brick and slate stonework beautifully, a view across a small inlet towards a beautifully lit factory all set a mood which is both soft and sensual but at the same time rustic and incredibly comfortable. Unfortunately that evening mood was put off by a large party of ten or so that we had been sat next to. The noise level in the dining room, which on my last visit had been hushed and relaxing became so loud and boisterous that one could of thought we were eating in a sports bar. Needless to say, the mood that is so wonderfully set up by the décor is ruined a bit when I have to yell into my companions ear.
The meal began with the splitting of a Pizza Margarita ($20), one of Al Forno's specialties, a glass of Riesling from Oregon ($8.50) and a glass of Verentino ($9). The crust was wafer thin and super crisp with a sweet basil and tomato sauce. The slight char the crust receives from the grill adds a interesting toasted note which melds well with the sweet sauce, mildly salty cheese and fresh scallion. Certainly large enough to feed two or three, the pizza came out of the kitchen at perfect eating temperature, and the flavors were strong enough to still be enjoyable as the pizza quickly cooled.
Our first main course consisted of Tagliatelle with cauliflower, black currants, and brown butter ($20). Both dishes were prepared well, though my companion's pasta came out a good three to four minutes before my scallops without any real explanation. The pasta had an interesting mix of flavors which combined very well, the nuttiness of the sweet fruit of the black currant helping cut through the rich nut of the brown butter. A generous shaving of pecorino romano, combined with a very generous portion size was a bit overwhelming, with my companion asking for nearly half of the dish to be packed to go.
My scallops ($32) were perfectly cooked but there were certain aspects of the dish which I question. While the fatty roundness of the scallop and cream of the polenta were cut very nicely by the slight acidity of the blood orange, the beets on the plate were cold. That combined with a plating style which could be described as rustic (and a reused scallion garnish from the pizza) left me rather unimpressed.
Dessert was the most enjoyable dish out of all the courses, a pear and walnut tart. The perfect level of sweetness, crisp, buttery pastry and a crème anglaise with that perfect custard consistency. Warm side plates were a nice service touch and mentioning it was large enough for two people on the menu was also appreciated. My only issue is that because of the large starter and entree portions we could not finish half the tart on our own, despite how delicious it was. Because the desserts are prepared a la minute they are ordered with the starters and entrees. While this method may be a bit controversial, this tart was so well made that it certainly justifies the means. It is a bit of a shame though, that the tart also needed to be packed up for the next day and could not be finished while it was at it's peak.
The question remains whether Al Forno still lives up to the hype. If it were the hype of the early nineties then I would say certainly not. But it has not fallen so far from grace as it's critics claim. There are better restaurants in the city today, but Al Forno remains a solid (if pricey) meal with a wonderful dining room. It suffers from the same portion size issues that plague the rest of the city, along with a longstanding reputation that puts a lot of pressure on it. Perhaps the the recent return of Killiean and Germon from their excursions will result in a revitalized Al Forno that can return to the spotlight.