WHO’S IN CHARGE Italian restaurants are everywhere in the region north of Boston. Peabody alone has more than a dozen. Still, Dan and Daniella Mammola decided there was room for one more.
“We wanted a place that had Tuscan roots but with Mediterranean flair,” said Daniella, “a place that’s modern but approachable.”
Classic red-sauce Italian restaurants are all very well, she said, but this would be a place that foodies would enjoy. Last June, with business partner Peter Pantazelos, the Mammolas opened Alto Forno in a spacious new building on a hill in Peabody directly across from the Northshore Mall.
THE LOCALE Entering the elegant dining room, you know right away — from the maitre d’s courteous welcome, the glitter of crystal chandeliers, the nailhead-upholstered dining chairs — that you’re in for a fine dining experience.
We arrived for a 6:45 reservation on a Thursday evening and noticed plenty of empty tables. Within an hour, however, nearly every seat in the dining room was filled. The bar stretching along one side of the room was packed, too. The conversation level was lively but not overloud.
Our party of three sat at a square table with a white tablecloth, gray cloth napkins, and an oil lamp. Soft jazz and dim lighting added to the tony atmosphere. The high walls are mostly glass, so the room will be a lot brighter once summer rolls around.
The black-clad waitstaff was friendly and attentive, but not obtrusively so. At regular intervals, water glasses were refilled, more crunchy warm bread offered, and crumbs swept away.
ON THE MENU Executive chef Antonio Bettencourt’s menu is relatively concise and filled with unusual offerings, from a calamari appetizer with spicy pickled grapefuit ($14) to a lobster flatbread with roasted corn and shallots ($18). Main courses here range in price from $26 to $39, pricy but not as high as just down the hill at Alto Forno’s sister restaurant, Pellana Prime Steakhouse, where 16 ounces of bone-in filet mignon will set you back $59.
As a test, we ordered a $12 Brussels sprouts appetizer. Could Alto Forno make it interesting? Yes, it definitely could. The lightly spiced vegetables were charred in the restaurant’s big wood-and-gas-fired oven and garnished with house-made pancetta. The dish was served piping hot with a perfectly poached egg quivering on top. From the same 800-degree oven came a wild-mushroom flatbread ($16) flavored with black truffle and sharp shaved Parmigiano cheese. The crust was light and a little crunchy and the topping divine.
An order of salmon ($26) was a generous slab of fish with fingerling potatoes, orange-pistachio gremolata (chopped herbs), and a dollop of creamy yogurt with a touch of honey. The ribeye steak ($32) was a juicy treat. It came with a Kona coffee crust, cippolini onions, and a dish of au gratin potatoes fresh from the wood-fired oven.
Every bit of pasta here is handcrafted on the premises. An order of ravioli ($29) consisted of two huge and chewy squares. Each had been filled with ricotta and, at the last minute, a raw egg. The dish arrived with wild mushrooms, shaved Parmigiano, and pancetta. No wonder it’s a house favorite.
With beer, dessert, and coffee, the three of us spent more than we meant to at Alto Forno. But we savored every bite, and we left with pounds of doggie bags, enough for several more meals. We all agreed: It was money well spent.
Alto Forno, 41 Cross St., Peabody. 978-871-2942, altoforno.com.
Coco McCabe and Doug Stewart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.