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New Jersey Monthly Magazine
Restaurant Review
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Forno Italiano

Large, busy restaurant with an open kitchen and rustic Italian cuisine.

Reviewed by Suzanne Zimmer Lowery   
Posted August 5, 2013

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Forno Italiano of Sparta
Forno Italiano of Sparta

It takes blind faith to open a restaurant in a space that has seen four others fold—the last expiring after only about two years. But Erik Hall, 37, went in with eyes open. In 2007, he and his wife, Evin, turned around a downscale bar in nearby Newton. Now called Trinity Lounge, it’s a tapas and martini bar with a hip, young vibe. They hope to do the same with what had been Doc’s Steakhouse, now their new Forno Italiano.

They replaced the tile floors with wood, hung drapes on the tall windows, closed off the open kitchen and positioned huge potted palms throughout, somewhat easing what had been a bad noise problem. The interior is dramatic, but still loud on busy nights.

Bread is delivered daily from Tribeca Bakery in Manhattan’s Little Italy. It was presented at our table hot and crusty, with roasted red-pepper dip and olive oil that proved alarmingly spicy.

Antipasto platters make a fine start. The 14 choices include imported and domestic cheeses, as well as imported and house-made meats. The platters—three cheeses and three meats for $12.99; or five of each for $19.99—come with marinated olives, stone-ground mustard, pesto, shaved fennel and apricot mostardo. (A few more slices of grilled bread would have helped.) Also delicious was the Italian toast appetizer of thinly sliced, grilled, marinated skirt steak; caramelized onions; Parmigiano-Reggiano; and a drizzle of sweet, aged balsamic vinegar over grilled garlic bread.

The rustic Italian menu offers many pastas, but the ones we tried all had disappointing aspects. The house-made shrimp-and-ricotta ravioli were folded in such an odd way that one end of each dumpling had four layers of pasta and no filling, for a half-tender, half-tough consistency that detracted from the light and lovely fresh tomato sauce. Farfalle (bow ties) with shrimp, brandy, sun-dried tomatoes, Manchego butter and baby spinach sounded lively, but was bland and boring. Best was Sunday Gravy—a big bowl of rigatoni in a dark and smoky marinara with a small piece of beef braciole, one big meatball, a whole sweet sausage, a whole hot sausage and a dollop of house-made ricotta. Even so, the meats and ricotta were dry and the whole sausages awkward to deal with.

On our first visit, the waiter failed to tell us that entrées came with a salad. As a result, we ordered the panzanella bread salad, a delicious and lightly dressed layering of salami, Fontina, kalamata olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, pepperoncini, artichokes hearts and hearts of palm over crisp romaine, topped with tooth-breaking croutons (ouch!). No other salads materialized. Next visit, a different server asked the three of us who ordered entrées if we wanted a salad. Our fourth, who ordered pasta, was not asked. (Hall later told me that every entrée, including pastas, should get a salad. Get your act together!)

A standout among entrées was Duck 2 Ways. The crisply roasted breast was placed over adjacent pools of strawberry-rhubarb compote and Marsala zabaglione. Showered with shredded, confited leg meat and pink peppercorns, it was served with olive-oil whipped potatoes. Another fine main was tender loin lamb chops with mint pesto and a three-potato layered torta.

We were about to order chicken Francese—which the menu described as having a stuffing—when our waiter told us the chef was no longer doing it that way. Instead, we went with veal scallopine saltimbocca, a bit dry and tough and cloaked in an oddly sweet brown sauce.

The biggest let-down was grilled swordfish agrodolce in a sweet-and-sour stew of tomato, onion and olive, served with mascarpone polenta and broccoli rabe. The fish had a mushy texture, as if previously frozen, and the polenta was dry. 

Desserts included a creamy ricotta cheesecake; a pistachio semi-freddo that was fully, not semi, freddo (frozen), but was light and tasty once it warmed up; and a carozza of Nutella-stuffed grilled challah with raspberry sauce. It would have made a great French toast breakfast, but was too big and rich for an after-dinner dessert.

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