577 South Main Street, Providence RI 02903 (map); 401-273-9760; alforno.com
Pizza style: Grilled pizza
Oven type: Grill, duh
The skinny: Al Forno is the place where grilled pizza was born. Judging by the pizzas I tried there last week, it's still on its game. Pizza is served as an appetizer there. Our tip? Forgo a table and just sit at the bar, drinking beer or wine and eating the pizza
Price: $19.95 to $22.95 for pizza
Memorial Day fast approaches as I write this post, and along with it come the annual exhortations from the food media about grilling this and grilling that. By this point you've probably seen at least one or three grilled pizza how-tos — usually with the "angle" that grilled pizza is a departure from more common outdoor cookery.
Yeah, it's a little tired at this point, but these types of articles are a fairly recent phenomenon. When I founded Slice ages ago, nobody was talking about grilled pizza. It wasn't really until 2006 that the media took up the torch and started to trot it out annually.
Each of these articles can trace its existence to Providence, Rhode Island's Al Forno, the birthplace of grilled pizza.
It was there in 1980 that chef-owners Johanne Killeen and George Germon lit the proverbial fire, inventing grilled pizza by accident in an attempt at reproducing the wood-fired pizzas of Italy that they loved.
Make Grilled Pizza at Home!
OK, so now it's time for me to trot out Slice's own guide to grilling pizza. This is probably our most popular post during summer in terms of number of people searching for "grilled pizza." We have put together The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide to Grilling Pizza. This guide will have you making killer pies on the grill — and it's especially good for beginning pizza-grillers!
Killeen and Germon are sort of pizza-world legends in that way. It's not every day that a whole new pizza style is birthed. But this is no pizzeria. Rather, it's an Italian-inspired fine-dining establishment (a regional institution, in fact) that, you know, just happens to dabble in some damn good pizza.
In fact, these thin, oblong, sort-of Pac-Man–shaped pizzas are served as appetizers. When we visited last week, there were four on the menu, including the Margherita ($19.95) and Pepperoni ($22.95) pizzas that our group of four sampled as starters. A pie topped with breaded calamari that we observed a bar patron eating also looked intriguing.
While some folks may argue that Al Forno is resting on its laurels, the pizza we had there was superb. The crust was salty, slightly oily, almost fried in places, with a faint smokiness that enhances the overall flavor without overpowering it. Fontina is the cheese of choice, applied somewhat sparingly but none too stingily. Dollops of thickened sauce dot the pizzas, robust and a tiny bit sweet. Al Forno finishes the pizza with shaved scallions.
The pepperoni pie was more a soppressata-topped pizza than a Hormel-variety meatcircle fest. Our group of four seemed evenly divided on which was better. This was probably a rare case in which I voted in favor of the non-meat-enhanced pizza. The simplicity of the Margherita allows you to taste everything that's going on. And in this case, you want to.
Ladies and gents, this was some impressive pizza. In a different league than some of the grilled pizza I've had around NYC. Something for me to strive for in my own grilled-pizza-making.
Parting Tip: Sit at the Bar
As I've noted in this Talk thread, if you're only interested in the pizza, it's probably best to forgo a table and just sit at the bar. I don't know about you, but I always feel bad taking up a table at a busy restaurant just for appetizers and drinks. (And Al Forno does get busy — many internet sources say to expect a two-hour wait — there are no reservations.) There's also a lovely garden that other sources mention as being a good option if you're just doing pizza.
The pizzas are thin and don't get much "oven spring" to them. Don't expect puffy rims or airy "hole structure." A hearty pizza-eater could easily down one by him or herself. As appetizers, I'd say you cold chow down on half of one without spoiling your appetite for an entrée and dessert.
* OK, so I wasn't that surprised. I think I'd scoped out the menu in the past and had sussed out that Al Forno was a bit more fancy than I'd thought. But between then and last week I forgot.