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Food writing - Al Forno Review

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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.

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  1. What are the better restaurants in the city. I feel like there are tons of good restaurants in providence but no upscale restaurant that really stands out and is a cut above the rest (I am talking about new rivers, mills tavern, etc...)

    1 Reply
    1. re: Sambossanova

      I wouldn't really consider al forno a proper upscale restaurant. I feel it is more in the style of Bouchon (though certainly not on the same level), a more rustic style of food that is being refined. The noisy ambiance (admittedly there was a large party seated by us) and rustic plating style keep me from embracing it as a proper upscale establishment. I am not saying this style of restaurant is bad, in most cases I enjoy this style of restaurant more. But for the amount of money we spent a much more elegant meal could have been had at say L'Epicureo or Gracie's.

    2. Ironically we were at Al Forno's last week and had the Scallop dish you described for an appetizer and found it to be outstanding. We have dined all around the city and find ourselves returning to Al Forno again and again because we find it is very consistant. The prices are up there, however there are $20.00 pasta dishes at many places in the city.

      5 Replies
      1. re: jandj

        My criticism of the scallop dish was cut down a bit due to editing. The beets on the plate were cold, and while it offered an interesting temperature contrast, I believe the same function was fulfilled by the blood oranges in a much more effective fashion. Also the same scallion garnish that was used on the pizza margarita was used again on my entree. While the flavor profile wasn't thrown by it, getting the same garnish two courses in a row is was a bit irritating. My major issue with price is the portion size. This is a citywide problem really, not just confined to al forno. My companion could not finish her pasta, despite enjoying it immensely, mainly because of how much food was presented. I would have been perfectly happy with three scallops in place of four on my plate, considering the amount of polenta and beets/oranges. While a portion reduction would certainly merit a price reduction, in my mind the meal would have been much more enjoyable if we were able to finish the pear tart at the end of the meal. I probably wouldn't have minded paying the same price. While both my companion and I both have smaller appetites than the average american, we both had fasted through lunch that day in preparation.

        1. re: jimmiah

          Jimmiah: I enjoyed your review. One comment re portion size: When my family goes to
          Al Forno, we share pretty much everything. The pastas in particular are enough for two. Similarly, the meat entrees often come with a mound of french fries that no sane person would eat by himself. That makes the per person cost go down considerably, and everyone has (a little) room for dessert, which is always outstanding. We are big fans of the fruit tarts in particular.

          1. re: jimmiah

            I agree wholeheartedly with your concerns about their portion sizes. Every time I have been to Al Forno or other similarly corporate-feeling restaurants (including Mill's Tavern, L'Epicureo, many of the Atwells Italian places), I get the sense that they are serving a lot of so-so food rather than a smaller amount of higher-quality, more carefully sourced and prepared food. I would contrast thing with places like Chez Pascal, New Rivers and La Laiterie, all of which occasionally receive complaints from folks who feel that they are being comparatively ripped off.

            The issue is that good restaurants, for the most part, are not high-margin businesses. The make a relatively small amount of money per plate, because their ingredient costs are (or at least should be) high. Good food doesn't always come cheap. So, if a plate of a comparable dish is 50% larger at Al Forno than at another restaurant, and it costs exactly the same, what are we to conclude? One option is that the smaller restaurant is ripping us off--knowing how hard small restauranteur works to survive, I'm willing to give that one the axe. Another is that there are economies of scale at work--possible. Another is that Al Forno is cutting their costs somewhere.. maybe in the ingredients. I am not in the kitchen at any of these places, so chalk this up as mere speculation. I'm perfectly willing to admit I could be wrong. (Although I do know some local producers and I have a sense of who generally sources fresh, picked-just-that-day local produce and who buys from big wholesalers, often because they need the consistency and convenience at their scale of operation.)

            All I know for sure is that the last time I ate at Al Forno (which will be my last time there), I got an overly rich, bland piece of salmon, which was obviously the same middling farmed stuff you get everywhere (I find farmed salmon is generally much higher in fats, particularly less flavorful fats). It was huge, but I would have far preferred a smaller, higher quality piece of fish with some character. Thankfully there are other places in town I can find that, because if I'm paying 20-whatever dollars for a plate of food, I'd rather it be exquisite than ample.

            1. re: celeriac

              Mrs W. and I, with very high -- yet certainly not unreasonable -- expectations, tried New Rivers a couple years ago on a visit to RI. The food was neither exquisite nor ample. We do not have huge appetites but had to go up Smith St for weiners when we were through. I certainly don't like to feel uncomfortable when I finish a meal but if I am truly hungry then something has really gone wrong.

              One of the few times my pre-trip restaurant research utterly failed. Anyone who has read my posts knows how I feel about food in RI, but this was simply an expensive flop.

              My father wanted us to say hello to the proprietor and I'm glad we never got the chance to do so because it would have been a very uncomfortable --or phony -- conversation.

              1. re: Bob W

                To be honest, New Rivers is my least favorite of the three restaurants I listed above--I have once or twice found their food to be lacking something ("umph?") despite careful preparation and impeccable ingredients--but I am lost as to how to respond to the opinion that their portions are unreasonably small. I have never left unsatisified. In fact, the last time I was there I was really struck by the enormous size of the salad I had to start. I'm truly perplexed at this inconsistency in peoples' experiences, and I do know it comes up.

        2. "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."

          Don't forget, it's "its", not "it's".

          I've never eaten at Al Forno but the chefs were working at a place in Boston with the same dessert policy. I find it very annoying because I don't know what I'll be in the mood for before I've eaten my meal. Maybe I want something fruity or chocolately or creme brulee-y, maybe we want to split something or both get desserts. It's too hard to know before you've even eaten a slice of bread. Souffles I can understand, the rest of the desserts I think can come out just as well without ordering that far in advance.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Joanie

            I am a bit torn on the subject personally. As a foodie and professional cook and baker I understand and appreciate a made to order tart, having seen many baked beforehand and then microwaved for service. This tart (and if I am wrong then shame on me) was crisp, hot, and seemed freshly baked. The consumer in me is annoyed; however, I agree that over the course of the meal my desires for a particular dessert can change.

          2. third time i'm trying to post this, see if it gets through.

            you must identify (preferably up top) these people:
            recent return of Killiean and Germon

            also, i think their names are spelled wrong.

            1. Hey, nice job with that review.....but: early nineties!?!?! Jimmiah, do some research, you are off by a decade. I was hanging out w/ friends in that kitchen at the bottom of College Hill around 1981. By the way, Johanne and George are in the recent first edition of "edible Rhody" which I was given last week when shopping at Costantino's on Federal Hill (a pretty cool publication for Little Rhody chowhounds). And you have spelled Johanne and George's names wrong, btw. Boy do I miss the RI cooking (a native)!

              1 Reply
              1. re: NBP

                Well i considered the peak of their hype in the early nineties when they were awarded number one in the Casual Dining category from the interntional tribune (94' I believe). Killeen and Germon were awarded top ten chef positions in '93 if I remember correctly. Sure they were known for their food before then but I feel proper national fame did not come until the early nineties. I did fix their names in my final draft.