Wednesday, September 26, 2007

REVIEW: Al Forno: **** / $$$$

Al Forno is a difficult place to review. The hype is so thick that you could almost eat it instead of the food. Much praise from a historical perspective has been lavished, seeing as it pretty much ignited the Providence dining scene, which up to that point hadn't exactly been world-class. Al Forno also remains the only Providence dining area to have two recipes used nationwide to its name: Clams Al Forno and grilled pizza. Seeing as no other restaurant in Rhode Island can claim this, that kind of makes Al Forno our de facto foody flagship.

Still, a quick check on the various restaurant review websites shows that there are many, many unhappy customers at Al Forno. Even if you assume that a happy customer tells no one and an unhappy customer tells ten, I read an awfully large number of bad reviews. After reading others’ horror stories, and experiencing a little of it myself, I’m hesitant to say 'thumbs up!', but since I can only go on myself, I must. Al Forno is one of Rhode Island’s best restaurants and certainly worthy of hype, but not as much as it gets.

The place itself is isn't exactly dressed for success. It's in some cramped little armpit of Providence with such illustrious neighbors as The Fish Company, so a constant flow of drunk 20-somethings into the street will keep your exit interesting. The area is filled with large cement blocks, overgrown weeds, trucks from a nearby truck-related-something, and a glorious view of... the hurricane barriers. During the summer a romantic after-dinner walk is also made impossible because of the ceaseless flow of derelicts fishing. I'm not kidding. Dozens of people, ALL fishing. Some of them appear decent, but unfortunately decided to bring their seventy-three children. Others look like they belong in the Star Wars Cantina. While still others may be nice people, but I can't tell because none of them speak English.

Al Forno is like a different world. The parking lot is full of luxury cars, lights glimmer from the outside dining area, and the faint sound of music and dinner chatter stand in stark contrast to the screaming of children from the seaside and the thundering of hip-hop from the bars. The inside is well appointed, well decorated, and generally very chic. It is a perfectly classic dining area and one of my local favorites. Tables are well dressed, but the chairs need a serious upgrade in the comfort department. Old window-side benches left behind from the building's original purpose are recycled as seats that have charm but no back support. I'd rather have back support.

The service I had was basically perfect. Water and wine flowed, frequent attention, and pleasant demeanor made us feel welcome. The wait was terrible, and some of the employees seemed not arrogant, as other reviews have said, but annoyed. The ceaseless flow of pretentious(!) customers could explain that. Still, it’s unacceptable. Lapses in decorum such as that just don't happen when your patrons, assholes or not, are paying well over $100 for just two people.

Also, a major, nay, ENORMOUS, knock against Al Forno is its insistence to not take reservations. When you have one of the hottest tickets in town, you take some bloody reservations. I was lucky on my most recent trips to never have a wait over thirty minutes, but waits of two hours are not uncommon. This is not TGI-Friday's. You do not have some weird philosophy about the equality of all. You are a restaurant, so take a god-damned name over the phone.

Now, on to the important stuff.

Julia Child ate here every time she was in the area, and I can certainly understand why she did so. The food is stellar. House specialties, such as Clams Al Forno and the grilled pizza margarita, are delectable. Dishes are served simple and perfectly cooked. Sometimes, too simple. The bruschetta costs a fair amount and is TRUE bruschetta, namely, toast. Put something on it!

As far as I’m concerned, their baked pasta with five cheeses is the only dish you should ever get. But, if you must deviate, the oven roasted lemon chicken breast is a treat for the mouth. Delicate, tender, slightly tangy, it’s just ab-fab. Their specials are almost always brilliant and delicious (albeit sometimes pricey) and a real reason to come back. Surprisingly, an exception is a house specialty, the Dirty Steak. It's a steak cooked directly on the hot coals of the fire. Tasty, gimmicky, and not at all worth it for over $40.

The wine list is a surprising disappointment. It was well chosen with a good selection of affordable wines. The sommelier was well trained, but the lack of breadth left the list somewhat lacking. Considering Al Forno's fame, I expected one of the best wine lists in New England. Instead, I got a merely good one.

The dessert menu, on the other hand, is one of the best, if not the best. Filled with great, inventive desserts that can be had nowhere else, I would go back for just the desserts until I weighed half a ton. They cost a pretty penny, though, ranging from $9 to $18. But believe me, they are definitely worth it. Their creme anglaise is perfect, a surprisingly rare feat. Their croque Mademoiselle is just freaking mouth-watering. The Mascarpone Sorbetto? Illegal!

Whether you think the sometimes absurd wait is worth it or not is up to you. Frankly, I’ve never eaten anywhere worth a two-hour wait and Al Forno is no different. But a one-hour wait? Now we’re talking. And this is precisely the wait you'll get in the middle of the week or during the summer when the city empties out. Al Forno is generally perfection in what it does and, flaws or not, I love it and think everyone should try.

Al Forno: ****
Price range for two: $60-$130

Al Forno
577 S Main St
Providence, RI 02903
401-273-9767 (Reservations not accepted)

Tuesday through Friday 5:00pm to 10:00pm
Saturday 4:00pm to 10:00pm

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