Fire & Ice

Walking into the lair of Forno, my first instinct was to pull a Vince Vaughn in Swingers, leap on a table, and yell, “Our little baby’s all grows up.” Sadly, I hadn’t had a cocktail yet so such a showcase was not in the cards. It’s true, though. Forno, the latest prize on the belt of stalwart nightlife-preneurs Chris Corso and Mike Gallicchio, shows that the duo have left the glow sticks permanently in the rearview mirror.

There’s a nightlife curve to growing up, when quantity gives way to quality. Dancing on tables, Jello shots, and whatnot gradually give way to pubs-with-grub and finally, restaurant hopping. Heels get pricier, suits replace shorts, and Mardi Gras beads give way to pearls and Rolexes. Copper mule mugs replace plastic cups and burritos as big as your head turn into ahi tuna tacos served marching band-style, standing straight up on a special plate.

They once provided a dance floor where the community could get its groove on, but this time, Corso and Gallicchio are literally providing a hearth for patrons to gather ‘round. Forno has quickly become the dining darling of the district. The heart of the enterprise is a 7-foot stone-fire oven (Forno is Italian for oven), a giant beast of a thing. Purchased in California and shipped to Columbus—where a window had to be removed to install the hulk in the restaurant—the oven is beautifully wrapped in copper, the kitchen staff constantly buzzing around its fiery hive. Nicknamed “The Boss,” the flaming pit lends its heat to everything from signature pizza to a Flinstonian Tomahawk steak.

The space is set up with a unique fire-and-ice vibe. Enter through the door and guests have a blue-pill, red-pill choice—take the blue pill and turn to the left to find a cool, ice-blue bar area with a frosty white marble bar and table tops. This side is all-day icy chic, a perfect place to perch, cold drink in hand, and get your swanky on. Opt for the red pill and slide off to the right, into the glowing heat of the dining room—warm woods, hot oven, and sunset tones. Linking the two are meticulously stitched leather chairs and giant white hoop-skirt lamps.

Seating options range from the bar to two-tops to six-tops to private party rooms. You can play peacock and sit in the floor-to-ceiling windows, or get your rendezvous on in cozy corners. Details like purse hooks under the bar and toiletries in the bathroom show mindfulness on the
designer’s part.

One thing that impresses immediately is the service. Patrons are greeted by a phalanx—yes, a phalanx—of staff. Hostesses, servers, bartenders, suited-up managers, all smiling and scurrying about making sure everyone’s needs are met, whether it’s providing a taste  of wine or giving advice on menu items. Managers seem to have gone to the Bill Clinton school of charm, when they do the table drop by—And how are you?—the guests fall into that cone of undivided attention and come out the other end feeling flattered and special. It’s an art form, really. People will forgive all sorts of messy kitchen errors as long as they feel like stars.

Thankfully, there’s nothing to forgive about the items that come out of Forno’s open kitchen. The menu aims to offer something for whatever level of hunger you’ve got going on. Wee bowls of olives all the way up to the Viking-portioned 22-ounce Tomahawk ribeye, with everything in between.

Many of the dishes spend time in The Boss, which gives the whole meal a flush of fire. Shared items that glowed include the house-cured pork belly ($11), given a contrasting sharpness through the use of pickled red cabbage; arancini ($8); fried risotto balls filled with molten Fontina; and the roasted garlic shrimp ($11), flavor popping with fresh garlic. However, the ricotta and toast plate ($11) could shape up into the signature dish. It’s quirky, with its warmed ricotta and peaches that have been grilled in the oven, and served with warm slices of bread. The first couple of bites, honestly, are like, shrug, not much, but something about the creamy texture and the bits of peach sweetness contrasting with the crunch of the bread triumphs in the end. Maybe it’s because, about half-way through, you realize that this dish is really just a heightened version of cottage cheese and canned peaches and that thought tugs at the melting pot of memory, infusing the dish with the added flavor of innocent nostalgia, or maybe it’s because it’s just really good.

There are salads, of course, but on chilly-to-the-bone nights, substantial food is the order of the evening and Forno’s main courses fill that yen for warmth. Pasta Forno ($13) is a pleasant vegetarian option full of meaty mushrooms that give body to the vodka sauce. The salmon ($21) is perfectly cooked, with that little seared off crunch on the outside that makes the softness on the inside all the more tasty, and is served on a bed of black lentils and red pepper puree, flavors hinting of Bollywood. Seriously, this a salmon for adults.

And then there’s the aforementioned Tomahawk ribeye ($44). If you like going to RenFest and eating a huge turkey leg, there’s similarity in aesthetics here, except the ribeye has flavor. Served on a wooden carving board, the steak is bathed in truffle butter with flakes of sea salt scattered about its seared outside. The salt makes the dish. Every few bites, a crunch of salt explodes, enhancing the fatty flavor and rocketing the steak into Master of the Universe territory.

While shared plates and heavier main dishes are worthy, they are merely on the periphery of the star of the show: stone-fired pizzas. Literally, the pizza offerings are presented down the center of the menu, with the other dishes orbiting their doughy sun. Ranging in price from $13-15, the pizzas have gone through a bit of a metamorphosis since Forno’s inception. Good dough was locally sourced, but perfectionist chef Vince Martin wanted great dough and came up with his own recipe. Given the heat and singular atmosphere of the beastly oven, there was a lot of practice to get the timing just right. Chef has a two-inch burn on his forearm as evidence.

Entering the Columbus pizza arena with a bang, the stone-fired pizza is thin-crusted and foldable—the way pizza should be. Burnt bits here and there emphasize the live fire action, as do those bubbly orbs along the crusty edge. The toppings range from the serene simplicity of the margherita ,with thick slices of fresh mozzarella, to the veggie bonanza of the garden pizza. The carne pie is about as meat-centric as possible. This is pizza for grown-ups. And during the 4-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday happy hour, the pizzas are half-price, as are shareables and other specific dishes.

The Short North shed its boho beginnings awhile ago, and Forno’s adult playground  occupies a shiny new spot.

 

Forno is located at 721 N High St. and is open at 4 p.m. every day except Sunday.

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