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Al Forno - Providence

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Just curious why Al Forno -- Providence's best-known restaurant, right? -- is never mentioned when people ask for recommendations for places in Providence. Is it because it's so well-known and thus not sufficiently chowhoundish? Is it because its quality doesn't quite live up to its titanic reputation?

I'm not from Providence, so maybe there's something I'm missing, but I did eat at Al Forno once and had a really wonderful meal. Two years later, I can still taste the black-olive-and-pumpkin free-form lasagne. In a good way, I mean.

As I said, just curious.

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  1. For years there has been something of a chowhound reverse-snobbery backlash against Al Forno.

    It's pricy, probably not as good as it was 20 years ago (and who among us is? sigh), and aloof to non-regulars, but based on the (mediocre and deeply unsatisfying) meal we had at the hound-favored New Rivers I'd return to Al Forno way before going back to NR.

    I think people have been cowed into not recommending AF.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Bob W.

      Have been backhere since "77",and haven't been to either one of them, just not my cup of tea.

      1. re: SK

        I think diners don't get enough credit. Al forno has stopped reaching for excellence for six years. The owners are rarely at the restaurant and the chef in charge has been there for almost 20 years. Fresh blood does good things for tired restaurants. There are restaurants in Europe that are institutions as well as Al Forno and continue to strive for excellence year after year. Al Forno rests on its laurels and simply pumps out mediocre food day after day. It is a cash cow, now selling merchandise on the menu, raising prices well above what the quality of the food is worth. The ingredients have suffered and the quality of cooking talent has diminished. Al Forno used to command the best cooks in town. Now it has become to stale and the the better cooks want more from their employer, not just a name on their resume. Diners aren't stupid, they realize this and aren't just following the pack of Al Forno bashers. They are having bad, expensive meals with rude service. And unlike ten years ago there are many other options for high quality dining.

      2. re: Bob W.

        I disagree -- I don't think it's snobbery to say that in a town with as many great restaurants as Providence, Al Forno is not worth a special trip. The food is good, but it is overpriced and it's nothing you couldn't find anywhere else.

        My husband and I went to Al Forno on our first official date during college. We still talk about it -- not because of the food, but because of the $12 "Grand Cookie Finale" we ordered. For twelve dollars (especially as college students), we were expecting fireworks and a cookie flambe. Instead, we were served a plate of mediocre cookies that could have come from the supermarket with a few chocolate truffles in the middle. He still refuses to go back because of that.


      3. I have found Al Forno to be overpriced with average food. I have never understood what excited people so much about this place.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Richard Z.

          What excited people was when it first opened Providence had no great dining except for Federal Hill, and even there was not widely known except by foodies and locals. Believe it or not when they opened wood grilled pizzas with "different" toppings were a novelty and Nouvelle Italian was just becoming popular. The space was great and the service was great. It became a destination, even for Boston dinners. I used to rave about it and make monthly jaunts. Now, years later, you can find all kinds of great dining in and around Providence and similiar places are a dime-a-dozen in Boston and the surrounding 'burbs. Al Forno has just been resting on its laurels for years, fed by their merchandising and it's still loyal followers. The whisper stream keeps this place going strong.

        2. I went last year - and was really looking forward to it, as a matter of fact. "You live in Providence, you must go to Al Forno, it's an institution," and similar platitudes among that line.

          So maybe it was too built up in my mind, that it had to be absolutely stunning, mindblowing, amazing, etc.

          What I found is that yes, the food was good, but overpriced for what it was, which was gussied-up Italian. Maybe I've become spoiled from eating out tons, but there was absolutely nothing memorable about the meal or experience. (For what it counts, the two friends I was with love Al Forno and had driven down from Boston to drag me there.)

          I was also turned off by the selling of Al Forno merchandise in the menu.

          For that price, I could eat really well at Mill's Tavern. Or Parkside. Or if I wanted Italian, I'd go to Pizzico. And then I'd still have enough money to go to Julian's for brunch the next morning.

          1 Reply
          1. re: jacinthe

            I did enjoy Al Forno the one time I ate there, although really don't think it was worth the almost 2 hour wait, the exorbitant cost, or the fairly aloof service.

            Pizzico, on the other hand, is a true gem, some of the best food in Providence, off the beaten path, nice atmosphere, really one of my faves.

          2. While Al Forno continues to do a good job with most menu items, it is indded a fading star in the now glittery sky that is the Providence dining scene. It has numerous competitors that do the job as well and, some feel, better (service atother places is superior, and the others do NOT focus so rigorously on cost control to the point of using peeled rhinds as stock base, etc--Al Forno's kitchen throws NOTHING away--you eat what other send to the dumpster).

            1. I have eaten at Al Forno many times. But the last was about a year ago. We sat at the bar which was tended by a long-time employee who was chastised by George the owner for not keeping up with the dirty glasses -- definitely detracted from the experience. The food wasn't as good as I remembered and it certainly isn't as creative or attractively plated as what I've grown used to since I moved to Boston. Basically they serve very large potions of tasty, well-executed Italian and New American dishes. Very casual.

              That said, I think it's still much better than most places I've eaten in Providence. Since that visit I have been to Mills Tavern, the now-defunct Empire, Parkside (many times), Neatts, New Rivers, Pot Au Feu, Rafael's, Aqua Viva, Pane E Vino and probably other places I can't remember. Of all of them only Mills Tavern seemed like it was in the same league. We went twice and it was great the second time, but on our first visit we got a very annoying, used car salesman-style waiter. Very good. But also not very original for a place that is thought of as one of the best places in town.

              I think Al Forno gets a bad rap from Rhode Islanders because it comes across as slightly arrogant and doesn't seem to view other Providence restaurants as its competition. It doesn't do the PR on the radio shows, or the cooking benefits or in RI Monthly the way other restaurants do. They have a bit of an attitude about cooking meat well-done, putting salt and pepper on the table and forcing you to cut your own pizza. And they don't take reservations. These things have never bothered me. But I'm sure they've helped alienate some people.

              I hope they step it up. Because I have had more fine meals there than anywhere else in Providence. I chalk up my last visit to Al Forno as a bad night and wouldn't hesitate to go back. But I probably would not sit at the bar again.

              11 Replies
              1. re: Ex-RIer

                I don't get it. I have tried all of the other so called must-try restaurants in Providence, and everyone compares themselves to Al Forno. Al Forno is still the standard.

                If you don't want to wait two hours for a table, go early!

                If you don't like $18 grilled pizza that tastes fabulous, go to Dominos!

                Part of the dining experience is trying new things, and if something is too expensive or too exotic for you, stick with something safe, like their dirty steak, which is fabulous! Or one of their amazing pastas!

                The wait staff here are always consistent, knowledgable, and have never-ever treated me in a snobby or arrogant way. Don't go in with a chip on your shoulder and you won't be treated rudely.

                I have tried Steak 10, Bacaro, The Barnsider, Capriccio, and I will always go back to Al Forno.

                1. re: VTPete01

                  "If you don't like $18 grilled pizza that tastes fabulous, go to Dominos!"

                  There IS a middle ground you know....you could go to Raphael, spend $12 and not be treated to the attitude you'll get at AF.

                  And maybe not snobby or arrogant, but definitely an air of condescension (although certainly not by everybody in the restaurant).

                  1. re: JaneRI

                    And c'mon.....Barnsider? You're going to compare BARNSIDER to Al Forno? Barnsider serves baked stuffed scrod and has a salad bar for God's sake! With port wine cheese!!

                    1. re: JaneRI

                      Aww come on Jane, it's hard to beat the Barnsider for steak tips. 8>D

                      1. re: JaneRI

                        Spoken like a true snob.

                        I grew up in the area, and have equally fond memories of both restaurants.

                        1. re: Gabatta

                          Get over yourself - Barnsider was never fine dining. I know that because I have eaten there myself, more than once. It serves a particular purpose, but it was never one of the top 10 restaurants in the city. I'm a snob because I think port wine cheese mixed w/cottage cheese isn't cutting edge cuisine?

                          I was making the point that it should not be compared to Al Forno in the way it was. The exist in 2 totally different realms.

                          1. re: JaneRI

                            On another note, I kinda like the Barnsider simply because it is the way it is. Those salad bars with big wheels of cheddar are hard to find, and it is quite comforting a lot of times when you do. Too often whatever someone calls "cutting edge" cuisine is really ridiculous.

                            I dont think JaneRI was being snobby about it at all. If I am saying that there are too many other great restuarants to worry about Al Forno, Barnsider is not in that list. They just are not in the same league, and thats perfectly fine.

                            1. re: basachs

                              Right - I wasn't really downing Barnsider (as i said, I've been several times myself)....but you can't say "well I've been to Barnsider and Al Forno stills outdoes them" as an example of why you think AF is still #1.

                            2. re: JaneRI

                              IMO neither place is top ten in the city. Flatbreat pizza isn't really "cutting edge cuisine" either the last time I checked..

                              Get over YOUR self. You put down a restaurant with double exclamation points because it has a salad bar? OH!!!...GASP...a salad bar!

                              1. re: Gabatta

                                You somehow, despite her clarity, seemed to missed Jane's point. She was not putting down Barnsider, but rather merely pointing out that one cannot defend Al Forno's continued greatness by pointing out that it surpasses the beloved Barn. While you may not consider AF a top ten establishment, AF and many Rhode Islanders do. The same cannot be said for Barnsider.

                      2. re: VTPete01

                        I really dont know where you are dining that they compare themselves to Al Forno. You never hear about Al Forno anywhere..

                        I moved to Providence about 2 years ago and still have not tried it. Why? Because there are so many other great places to try first. I am not going to knock it until I have tried it, but to say it is the standard of places seems a bit miscalculated.

                    2. So much of a dining experience for me is the expectation and how it matches it. I used to frequent Al Forno about 15 years ago and was constantly wowed by the pizza (still the best I can remember) and the rustic fruit pie desserts. We stopped going when the prices starting going out of sight. My last time there, ~7 years ago, we sat on the outdoor patio, shared one pizza, one salad, one entree and a bottle of wine ($40) and the tab came to $150, 7 years ago! The food was excellent, but I can only imagine what it would cost us now...definitely not worth it. For those prices, I want something more inventive.

                      1. I have been to Al Forno a few times, but not in the past number ofyears. For me, the really big deal is: "Why should I force feed myself dinner at 5:00 in the afternoon or wait forever to be seated when there are so many wonderful restaurants in Providence where one can get a reservation?"

                        1. I have never liked Al Forno, and I have gone there many times (mostly to please out of towners) since it opened. It's an "oven restaurant": not a lot of cooking going on, sort of an amateur place where everything is thrown together and baked. The pizzas are very good, but everything else: as other say, there are a lot of other good places to go.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: janeer

                            for 'an amateur place' they've certainly been around a long time and garnered a lot of accolades round the globe. must be doing something right.
                            yep: indifferent staff. long waits if you choose a popular time. like a country club, they accomodate regulars...and there are the $$$$$ prices.
                            (as if any of that doesnt exist in tope-tiered joints in nyc or sf or nola.)
                            but back when calamari was mandatory for a restaurant in rhody (love it, btw) al forno brought in fresh, local, and simple. still make magic with very few ingredients.

                            1. re: janeer

                              Well, I gave in and went to Al Forno last night, all because I just had to sit in that lovely patio once before summer came to an end. My friend and I had agreed to split a pizza, so I thought that was an inexpensive but satisfying way to enjoy the ambience. Once we got there the native corn chowder caught her eye. She ordered that and a salad, I chose a pasta dish (shells w/tomato, cream, fresh basil & corn). The bowl of $13 corn chowder was less than an inch deep. My shells came - looked YUMMY - I stuck my fork in to discover they are placed in a single layer in a very deceiving-looking casserole dish. I probably had 25 shells? I had a really tasty Wash state riesling, at $8.50 a glass I think that's really good for Al Forno....but I've never seen anything from this winery go for more than $10/bottle. On the upside the bartender was attentive, pleasant & helpful. The server who brought our meals and waited on us thereafter was very good as well. Come to think of it, the young boy who I think was a busboy (and shimmed our uneven table) was really pleasant too. No arrogance or indifference last night.

                              1. re: JaneRI

                                Jane, We read your review but we were wondering if you enjoyed your meal?

                                1. re: jandj

                                  My 25 shells were delicious, yes. Haha. Did I enjoy my meal? I'd have to say a qualified yes. It was tasty - but for the money there was not nearly enough. I saw some old posts where people talked of huge pasta portions, sharing ...taking home...etc. I wonder if Al Forno saw those same posts and decided to change their ways?

                            2. After many years of wanting to go, I finally found the opportunity to go to Al Forno a couple weeks ago. I really liked the casual atmosphere of the restaurant, and the garden area where we ate was charming. My friend and I went on a weekday and got a table in less than 15 minutes. I had no issue with the prices. The pasta I ordered - shells with 4 cheeses, I think?, was fantastic - and way too much! (And, I can eat!) We had the corn fritters as an appetizer - very good! My friends Lemon cake dessert was really moist and lemony. My dulce de leche ice cream sandwiches - not worth the calories. Yes, I had heard it wasn't like it used to be, but I thought it was good food. My only issue was the service. Not professional - it almost seemed like they were giving trainees on the job training.... My friend said she went the week before and found the service to be the same. I have been to Federal Hill, and without knowing where to go, I have been "hit and miss." I have a feeling that Al Forno may lack innovation and maybe even excellence, but sounds like it is consistently very good.

                              1. I went to Al Forno's 2 years ago, clearly into what many here consider AF's decline. Went on a summer weekday evening and had a great time with a friend. We ate in the garden, had a friendly waitress who came up with a good wine recommendation and even brought us a map to show the region it was from. We split an app, 2 pastas and a lavender panna cotta that was wonderful. With a bottle of wine it came to just over $100 and a wonderful memory. I can still taste the mint tagliatelle with the lamb ragu.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: thinks too much

                                  I think the garden -- splitting pizza, salad and dessert -- is the only way to go. I just won't wait for more than an hour to get seated at their uncomfortable little tables inside. And I've got some "arrogant" stories that would make your hair stand on end. A friend was with a party of six, all eating plenty, drinking plenty, and when he asked for a little more of some ketchupy condiment, he was told "no, the chef says he gives exactly the right amount for the dish."

                                  1. re: ccferg

                                    I'm not denying other people's right to have had horrible experiences at a restaurant that I've had a good one. There are so many factors that affect a dining experience from what kind of day the produce purveyor had to the phase of the moon. *quirky, sardonic smile* So many people have been quick to write down their negative experiences, that I thought I would share one to contrast. After all, it seems that people with a negative experience tell 20 people, and people with a positive experience tell 5.

                                    1. re: thinks too much

                                      Yup, that's true. And I should add that I've always thought the food there was pretty darn good.

                                2. This thread is hilarious -- Al Forno is a terrific restaurant with zero pretension! It's in Providence......