Set near India Point Park along the Providence River and the Fox Point hurricane barrier in Providence, R.I. Al Forno is a little bit of Italy in this coastal New England city. Driving to the restaurant, the massive new I-195 bridge looms ahead – you might ask yourself, “where am I going?” Fear not. Once you drive off Tockwotton (yes, that is the name of the adjacent street) and the setting sun catches your eyes, those fears begin to dissipate. But it isn’t really until you step through the ivy and climbing vine-covered arched walkway into the restaurant’s outdoor garden that you remember why this must-try spot is so popular – you immediately feel like you’re at a trattoria in Italy.
The restaurant has five somewhat distinct dining areas. The main downstairs room is crammed with small white linen and paper-topped tables that are always full, but it’s never too cramped. More tables are situated in the room where the indoor bar is (oddly enough, one right by the door to the restrooms. Thankfully I’ve never had to eat there). Upstairs is another, albeit darker room that never seems to beckon to me, even in the dead of winter. The real treat is to sit out in the garden, enjoying your pizza and cocktail at the sleek, new outdoor bar, or in the garden (complete with a trickling fountain).
The menu at Al Forno never seems to disappoint or bore me – and I’ve been there many more times than I can count. For starters, their grilled margarita pizza is a must, especially when Coll Walker’s corn and tomatoes grace the top of the crisp, paper-thin shells. The Roasted Beet and Avocado Salad is one of my favorites when I’m looking for a hearty salad, but as the entrees at Al Forno are not to miss, the crunchy, slightly sweet Grass Salad studded with walnuts and gorgonzola is often my go-to.
Al Forno is known for their baked pastas, most famous being their simple mix of tomato, cream, and five cheeses. But if their Cheater’s Lasagna is on the menu, be warned: It’s irresistible. One-bite, supremely tender rib-eye meatballs are set atop sheets of fresh lasagna pasta layered with ricotta and tomato, taking comfort food to a whole new level. As for the entrees, I often find there are an overwhelming number of delicious dishes, each carefully prepared and served with simple yet delicious sides that truly reflect the freshest ingredients that are available at that moment. But one dish that I hope never leaves the menu (it hasn’t yet) is their Eggplant Al Forno. Thick slices of eggplant are bathed in a sweet-tart tomato sauce and topped with gooey mozzarella and salty Parmigiano. Just be sure to ask for more bread from your server so you can mop up every last bit.
And even if you’ve overstuffed yourself, dessert is a must (and as you have to order it before dinner, you won’t even know that you’re stuffed… yet) – as long as it is one of their seasonal fruit tarts (or when a rare soufflé appears in the winter). A tender and flakey dough gently wraps around the fresh fruit filling, in a free-form crostata style, and it’s baked until the fruit nearly melts apart. Served warm, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, how can you not fall in love with this place?
It’s the kind of place you can always rely on for a good drink and a great meal. Seamless service, an ever-changing menu (yet that also always seems to have a couple of much-loved favorites), and a calming atmosphere always seems to energize me after the long drives from New York or calm me down after a hectic day at work. Its one downfall might just be its sheer popularity – but take it from us, its well worth the wait (especially with a cocktail in hand).