2010-04-21 / Restaurant of the Week

Forno Italia Ristorante

B ack in the early 1990’s, a small, family run restaurant opened its doors specializing in making pizza in a wood burning, brick oven (forno). The patriarch,

Federico Spatola, has been in the

restaurant business for over 50 years and began making homemade mozzarella in his native Italy. Today, Forno Italia Ristorante continues to make perhaps the best brick oven pizza in Queens with the freshest ingredients. Customers have commented, “There is absolutely no other pizza but Forno Italia pizza.” Federico owns a fresh mozzarella factory in Ridgewood and this delicious, buttery mozzarella is the star component in their famous pizza and many other dishes served here. You’ll be treated like family and you’ll be among the Spatola family, as everyone helps out and makes you feel very welcome.

The cozy dining rooms, which hold up to 80 people, feature plastered walls of sienna, tile floors, sturdy wood tables and glowing chandeliers. Forno Italia is the ideal place for a family gathering, dinner with friends, or an intimate date. The expansive menu features homemade pasta, incredible salads, meat, fish, chicken and, of course, that fabulous pizza. A nice selection of wines will complement any dish and the helpful staff and family members are happy to help you with your choice.

While we looked at the menu, a basket of piping hot foccaccia bread was brought to the table, just out of the miraculous wood burning brick oven which renders it so light, tender and crispy. Sea salt and herbs sprinkled on top make this bread irresistible. Next we tried the pizza: a simple Margherita with tomatoes, basil and their famous mozzarella…outstanding for its tender crispy crust, high quality mozzarella and just the right amount of tomato and herbs.

A special warm salad of shrimp and artichoke hearts was beautifully presented on radicchio leaves and whet our appetites for more. Ask for their signature salad of spring greens, prosciutto, walnuts and shaved Parmigiano, served in a tiny basket made of baked Parmigiano cheese. This salad is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Antipasti on the menu include Federico’s handmade bocconcini mozzarella with paper-thin slices of prosciutto, and a classic Caprese salad of sliced mozzarella, juicy tomatoes and basil drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. This mozzarella simply melts in your mouth and makes every dish a winner. Cold seafood salad tosses calamari, clams and shrimp together with zesty dressing and offers plenty to share ($10). Clams oreganata is prepared with tasty breadcrumbs and lots of garlic, served six to an order ($9). Spring is the perfect time to try the tender asparagus baked with mozzarella and topped with grated Parmigiano. A platter of grilled calamari, shrimp and Portobello mushroom provides a nice sampling to share as a first course.

With dozens of pasta dishes on the menu, and nightly specials, it’s clear that one visit to Forno Italia is not enough to sample the breadth of sumptuous dishes. Indeed, the full dining room on a weeknight is an indication of just how popular Forno Italia is. Most customers are greeted by name and each seems to have his or her own special dish. One of the house specialties is the rigatoni alla Corte D’Assise, made with a rich Bolognese sauce, flecked with mushrooms, prosciutto and peas. With just one forkful, you’ll be oohing and aahing. Homemade cavatelli are topped with slices of incredibly tender filet mignon, cherry tomatoes and peas for a hearty dish. Mamma Rosaria’s own lasagna is outstanding for the perfect layers of pasta, meat, and fresh cheese and will make any day feel like Sunday in an Italian home. Penne alla Norma is made with fresh eggplant, tomato sauce and creamy ricotta ($13). Orecchiette alla Barese is a dish from Bari that combines handmade pasta “ears”, broccoli rabe, Italian sausage, garlic and oil.

Chicken Paradiso is another popular dish, for its fork-tender chicken cutlet prepared with a creamy mushroom sauce ($15). The same dish can be prepared with veal, if you prefer. The chef’s special lamb is uniquely prepared rollatini style with a wonderful sauce studded with chestnuts. I loved the creamy mashed potatoes that accompany this dish and help in soaking up the delectable sauce. The grill sizzles with a hefty rib-eye steak or pork chops, prepared with peppers and onions, and all meat entrĂ©es are served with potatoes, vegetable of the day and pasta or salad, making Forno Italia a very good value.

Fresh whole grilled fish of the day may include orata or branzino, but we enjoyed it with fillet of sole stuffed with chopped shrimp and crab meat. Enjoy plump, juicy shrimp a number of ways, such as parmigiana, Francese, scampi, or fra diavolo style, with spicy sauce, served over pasta. All dishes are prepared on the spot and served by professional, courteous staff.

Full as you are, don’t miss out on dessert, where you can choose among Limoncello sorbet, pistachio parfait, flaky profiteroles, coconut sorbet served in its shell and more. The piece de resistance was a Nutella pizza, hot from the forno and oozing with decadent Nutella chocolate hazelnut spread and generously dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Mamma Mia! A nice cup of espresso or cappuccino finishes this memorable meal in true Italian style.

Forno Italia is open seven days a week for your dining pleasure. Mondays to Fridays, they open at noon and serve until 10pm (11pm on Fridays). On Saturdays and Sundays, they open at 2pm and serve until 10pm. They deliver too. Plan your next family gathering here, where you’ll feel very welcome while you enjoy a feast of fine Italian cuisine. Visit Forno Italia for the best pizza, pasta and inventive Italian dishes served in a friendly, family restaurant. Salute!

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