Last night was a gustatory orgy of the highest order. My mom and her boyfriend Charley drove down from Boston for a birthday celebration at the culinary mecca of Providence: Al Forno. Becca and I joined them with ridiculous enthusiasm; we had been mentally preparing for the outing since last December when we blew our bank accounts there as a Christmas present to each other, and have been dreaming about the food ever since.
An Italian restaurant opened in 1980 by Johanne Killeen and George Germon, Al Forno has received numerous awards (even selected by the International Herald Tribune as ‘number one’ in the world for casual dining). Johanne and George both trained at our neighbor school RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design) where Johanne studied photography and George sculpture, architecture and television production. They each fell in love with food while living and working in Italy after college and conceived of this elegantly simple restaurant together in America. They serve an artistic, aesthetically pleasing, familiar set of Italian comfort foods, with unique and utterly delicious twists. Al Forno is often credited with the invention of grilled pizza (on taking my first bite, stars burst in taste overload behind my eyelids). We asked after our meal, rousing ourselves from a hefty food coma, if the owners were often in the kitchen. Apparently, our waitress told us, they fly in every four months or so to check on things from their house in the south of France. I couldn't be more jealous of their life.
I wasn't sure that the food would live up to the 2 and a half hour wait (a laughing and hungry wait filled with wine and woven stories about the people around us). But it did.
I started with (and oh so generously shared) a grilled pizza: thin flatbread topped with spicy oil, pecorino, bel paese, green onions, tomato – crispy spicy crackling yet melting in the mouth, oozing gooey tomatoes yet crunchingly smoky underneath. Others ate deliciously aged goat cheese and beet salads sprinkled with aged balsamic vinegar - a vibrantly green, light and airy pea soup, right out of the garden into the bowl, topped with a swirl of cream.
I then had curried riso ‘al forno’ under egg – a risotto style rice with sweet bursts of raisins, small pieces of chicken, prociutto, and an egg, cracked gently over the top of it, sprinkled with cilantro, and all baked in a cast iron pot. In my utter excitement I burnt my mouth in a shocking mouthful of fire – but I pushed through the pain and it was well worth ever second of discomfort. The egg yolk ran gooeily over the rice, combining with its sauce a delicious and interesting mix of flavors. My mom had an herb crusted pork tenderloin, incredibly moist and succulent.
Not only are the desserts worthy of murder, they are very clever: you have to order them before your meal, therefore your choice can't be influenced by the sheer amount of food already consumed. I had a candied rhubarb upside-down crème fraise cake: light, fluffy, deeply sweet and tartly sour all at the same time. A perfect dollop of crème fraise was on top to cool it all off. Others ate a malted coffee chocolate ice cream sandwiched between richly dark brownie cookies, a tangerine crepe with honey – light and summery, and a decadent chocolate bread pudding, gooey and warm.
Everything that we ate was astounding. Simple, recognizable, yet made with the very best ingredients with a perfection and creativity that brought the entire meal above and beyond what we had hoped for. We staggered out, filled to capacity, happily satisfied with our celebration and the fact that we all love the beauty of a good meal and good company.
I found the owners of Al Forno, Johanne and George, quoted in an online bio: "For us, our restaurants are like an art project that keeps evolving. The kitchen is our studio, and the food we cook is like a canvas that is continually being repainted, changed, and refined. Food is eaten the way art is perceived; it is digested and recorded. Given the right circumstances, a connection is made and communication takes place, which is what art is all about." The parallel between art and food has always been very strong for me; in fact, it is often a blurred line of similarity in my mind. Fine art often moves me, inspires me, and makes me think. A work of art has the ability to connect me to my own emotions and memories with its colors and movement. Food has the same effect. The palette of my taste is easily inspired; it links the visual with taste, with the body. It creates a great connection between people, a communication between the body and soul, an excuse to sit happily together at a table. Eating at Al Forno is like a bright impressionistic Monet, bursting with color and emotion - but, more imporantly, eating at Al Forno is like I am tasting those colors with my tonge, digesting those emotions with my teeth, understanding his landscape with my place setting.
Becca and I later headed out to see some friends. We walked down Thayer Street, the main drag of stores and restaurants on Brown’s campus. We could hardly move with the weight of all we had eaten dragging us down. But true to form, we found ourselves talking about what we would (and wished we would) cook this week: a baked 5-cheese pasta, bulgur salad with toasted pecans, an orange-anise panna cotta. We simultaneously sniffed the air and smiled as the smell of freshly fried donut wafted in sugary sweetness past our noses. Luckily, we bounce out of food comas pretty quickly.