Sporting a rustic look that mixes the terra-cotta colors of the Southwest with vintage fixtures and repurposed wood, Forno boasts one of the most inviting interiors we’ve seen in a while. This cozy and casual wine bar, situated in the Bromo Tower Arts & Entertainment District directly across from the Hippodrome Theatre and next door to Everyman Theatre, serves up what husband-and-wife co-owners Emina Dukic and Bryan Noto are calling “coastal cuisine”: brick-oven pizzas, small plates and quick bites, and a handful of more substantial entrees. Forno is well-positioned to fill a need in a neighborhood clamoring for more good dining choices, and, given the location, attracting theater-going customers should be a no-brainer. But long-term success will mean attracting loyal neighborhood customers as well. Can Forno fill the bill? If first impressions mean anything, we’re betting this charming spot will draw in both kinds of diners.
Noto (a former manager at nearby Alewife) and Dukic have fashioned a space that makes a great first impression. As you enter, the light-filled main dining room beckons on one side, while the cool, marble-topped bar entices on the other. That impression continues with the welcoming waitstaff. After a friendly greeting from the hostess, a knowledgeable waitress quietly, but enthusiastically, led us through chef Kris Sandholm’s menu, which emphasizes locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. As befits a wine bar, there is a nicely priced selection of reds and whites—many of them New World offerings in the $25-35 range, with most available by the glass as well.
We began with a sinful-sounding item from the “Bites” section, the crispy chicken skins with spicy barbeque sauce. Translucent shards of greaseless and, yes, crispy bits of what I consider the best part of the chicken were good enough to eat without the kicky sauce. Grilled whole squid from the “Small Plates” section was also a pleaser. Five whole squid atop a bed of baby kale—a generous portion big enough for a table of four to share—were grilled just to silky tenderness, with a touch of smoky flavor for depth. We couldn’t help but order the intriguing “Dr. Joe’s bacon-cured duck breast wrapped cornichon” (whew!), but this small plate was a bit less successful. Although they didn’t quite live up to their title, the little pickles in their smoky duck jackets were just fine, but they were perched atop croutons spread with a too-sweet mash of caramelized onions with an unpleasant, mushy texture. We simply plucked the cornichon off the croutons, which were superfluous. Problem solved.
No such problem with the entrees. There are only five or six to choose from—on our night, two fish selections, a grilled pork loin, chicken, a Moroccan-spiced rabbit, and a dish of curried vegetables with mustard greens and hominy—but that’s about right for a restaurant serving lots of eat-and-go theater patrons. But if you’re going to the theater, try to arrive early because these entrees are meant to linger over. Pale pink Arctic char is delicate and perfectly cooked, and its sides of braised fennel and artichokes with sundried tomato-flecked wild rice are a delicious complement. The Springfield Farm half chicken is moist, juicy, and smoked just enough to hint at summer barbeques and outdoor picnics. It, too, comes with pleasing vegetable sides: tiny baby beets, turnips, and fingerling potatoes glazed with chicken demi-glace and roasted. Next time, we’re going for the rabbit, which diners at the next table were “oohing” and “aahing” over.
The brick-oven pizzas at Forno—which is, after all, Italian for “oven”—hold a prominent place on the menu, and they’re solid, certainly good enough to comprise a meal. Thin-crusted and slightly charred around the edges, all but one feature fresh vegetables and cheeses—in the case of the Farmer’s Pizza, a moist house-made ricotta. The only thing standing in the way of perfection was an overdose of rosemary, which overwhelmed both the ricotta and the roasted vegetables. The pizza funghi was closer to heaven, with big hunks of earthy porcini studding a properly thin glaze of tomato and Parmesan. We’re looking forward to trying the pizza carne, which substitutes the mushrooms for confit duck, smoked bacon, and pulled pork, and the Parmesan for Asiago.
Desserts at Forno are just big enough to share and small enough not to overwhelm. We enjoyed a flourless chocolate “bar”—two dense and fudgy triangles presented in a cup and surrounded by fresh coffee-flavored cream—that was happily more semi-sweet than sugary, which is just how we like it. And just how we like to cap a meal of small bites and more substantial fare, in a setting we’d gladly return to, whether en route to a play or just to enjoy Forno’s quietly enticing pleasures.