More than a few of us entertain the fantasy of opening a restaurant. Yet converting restaurant dream into restaurant reality represents a fairly steep challenge — like, Tuckerman Ravine steep. The vast majority close their doors within the first year, and the rare few make it to age five.
So what kind of odds would you place on two young artists — a photographer and a sculptor — hoisting such a fantasy off the ground? And its remaining, running and vital, 37 years later?
Johanne Killeen and George Germon, wife and husband, opened Al Forno in Providence in 1980. Far from crashing and burning, the place quickly became the stuff of legend. They managed to breathe new life into traditional Italian fare in a way that made it their own. People came from everywhere, to taste the transcendent food, and also to work in the kitchen (Ken Oringer, Suzanne Goin, and Wylie Dufresne, to name a few). It seemed straightforward enough — a combination of local ingredients and gutsy reinvention — but it was executed with depth and complexity that were anything but.
Still, I arrive a skeptic. It’s been years since I’ve eaten here. The old stalwart didn’t even rate a mention in the Globe Magazine’s recent foodie’s guide to Providence. I figure the place is finally showing its age.
The doubt fades even before we are out of the parking lot. On one side, the Providence Harbor glints at dusk; on the other, a row of dogwoods trembles before what looks like an Italian villa swallowed by an old brick warehouse. The exterior, spotlighted from below, is dramatic, seductive. And once we step inside, the patina and gravity of experience are instantly visible, instantly felt. They are here in the way the hostess calmly shepherds us to a table, the waiters crisscross the floor without a jitter, the all-ages clientele looks so happily at home.
It sets a tentative diner at ease. And it doesn’t hurt that Al Forno’s two floors — a dining room and bar on each — are bustling and packed and wonderful spaces to inhabit. All these years later, the artists’ touch remains palpable, whether it’s a yellow-striped ceiling from which ears of corn decoratively dangle, or the perfectly simple aesthetic of a platter of baked pasta.
Germon died in 2015, leaving Killeen the sole owner. In Germon’s New York Times obituary, his friend Bob Burke, owner of Pot au Feu in Providence, says: “That restaurant has been ripped off more than any restaurant in the history of the world.”
Yet hard to say Al Forno has bent itself in any direction other than its own. For example, unlike virtually every new restaurant around, it offers no cocktail menu. I ask our waiter for a Negroni made with mezcal. He says they have no mezcal. I ask if there’s a signature Al Forno drink. He pauses, then says, “Cosmopolitan.”
I stop myself from laughing. Is it suddenly 1997? I order the Cosmo and regret it. It tastes like 1997. Even if wine from Al Forno’s extensive list is the best accompaniment to this cuisine — what Killeen and Germon called “Cucina Simpatica: Robust Trattoria Cooking” in the title of their first cookbook — the bar would be wise to rip a page from the kitchen, which went locavore back when everyone else was serving escargots out of a can.
But the real problem comes when it’s time to order food. The menu is loaded with temptation, with descriptions that set off deep cravings. Just try picking one of the five grilled pizzas. For these pizzas, Al Forno is justifiably famous. Germon, amazingly, invented this technique — where dough is draped over a hot grill, flipped, topped with ingredients, then finished on the grill — which he stumbled upon after hearing one of his employees mis-
describe how he’d seen a pizza cooked in Tuscany. I can still remember an Al Forno grilled pizza I consumed many summers ago, topped with local sweet corn, tomato sauce, mozzarella, feathered scallions.
No local corn this early in the season, so we settle on a stiff test for the kitchen, the calamari pie. It could be a weighty, sodden concoction. But what arrives, like that summer pie of memory, is an elegant sketch in balance and boldness. Expertly fried squid is strewn across pungent cheese and a powerfully spicy arrabbiata sauce, all atop some of the best pizza crust anywhere.
If one is looking for a single hit of Al Forno, for a brief, mind-blowing blast of what this restaurant does best, clams al forno is it. Succulent shellfish sit in broth that’s fiery, supple, oceanic. The vintage chipped-enamel casserole only enhances the dish’s poetry. Our server recommends pairing the clams with Tuscan bruschetta — grilled, house-made bread dosed with olive oil, garlic, and salt — the ideal sop. These basic rudiments are somehow made to straddle the visceral and the symphonic.
There are occasional dishes at Al Forno that fail to scale the culinary heights. Rather, they amount to very good, straight-up, old-school trattoria fare. Sometimes modest, expert delivery is enough.
So there’s the grass salad, a basic pile of thin-sliced Romaine layered with apple, walnuts, red onion, gorgonzola, and a tangy vinaigrette. But then there’s Al Forno’s Caesar salad, a peak experience in the realm of all Caesars. The orchestration is deft: super-crisp baby Romaine, quartered, dressed with a lemon and anchovy-forward dressing, finished with grilled-to-order garlic croutons. Joined with a glass of crisp, floral Gavi from Piedmont — a reasonable $9 a glass (all of Al Forno’s wines by the glass are reasonable and generously poured) — it is hard to beat.
If Al Forno is best known for its pizzas, the baked pastas are a near second. There are two, and we can’t resist ordering both. The first, with asparagus, artichoke, and pancetta, offers up the bright snap of spring and the grounding richness of cured pork. But the second remains the showstopper, as it has been since Al Forno opened. Sounds simple enough — shells baked with tomato, cream, and five cheeses — yet these low-profile ingredients, single-layered in a generous casserole, somehow join in elemental perfection.
I hate to be that guy, but though the entrees are good — that very-good-trattoria kind of good — they are a bit of a letdown after such a string of revelations. (Or it could be that we are full.)
The sausage-stuffed rabbit, albeit tasty, is swamped by the stuffing. The rabbit might as well be thinly pounded chicken breast. And a spicy clam roast suffers in comparison with that clams al forno appetizer: More (sausage, mashed potatoes, clumps of onion and endive) is decidedly less.
Until it’s more. Confit and roasted duck legs, with an orange-kumquat glaze, potato gratin, and broccoli rabe, is a table favorite.
Desserts are ordered with dinner, thankfully, because we are so full we wouldn’t order them after. Then we would miss out on profound pleasure: a tart for two that’s been baking away, timed to land at just the right moment. A magnificent kumquat and orange meringue tart just around the bend? Can we pause this moment forever?
577 South Water St., Providence, 401-273-9760, www.alforno.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $6.95-$16.95. Pizza $20.95-$25.95. Entrees $20.95-$43.95. Desserts $11.95-$13.95.
Hours Tue-Fri 5-10 p.m., Sat 4-11 p.m.
Noise level Convivial
What to order Clams al forno; Caesar salad; calamari pizza; baked pasta with tomato, cream, and five cheeses; confit and roasted duck legs; kumquat and orange meringue tart for two.