Dining Review: Al Forno in Providence

We look back at Rhode Island's Italian institution forty-three years after it opened its doors.

Confit duck legs with grape jus, Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes. Photography by Angel Tucker

There are plenty of icons that represent the quirky side of Rhode Island: sweet caffeine-spiked milk, a massive termite on the interstate, platters of deep-fried squid punctuated by banana peppers. But it was Al Forno, forty-three years ago, that told a different story of this small state: one that was deeply rooted in the arts and which made an impact, not only on local culture but international eating. 

The history is well-documented: Johanne Killeen and George Germon, two RISD students, fell in love with each other and with the rustic food of Italy. You could say the rest is history, but that would leave the accomplishments of the iconic Providence restaurant in the past, which misses, entirely, its ongoing influence. Those younger than the restaurant itself may have met grilled pizza or made-to-order desserts elsewhere — and they may, in turn, overlook the fact that creative vision is at the base of Al Forno’s identity. 

But decades later, its sense of self still radiates from the physical space, an aesthetic labyrinth that shifts from a pastoral patio to modern cavalcade in one swift turn. Brick is the predominant material but windows, interior and out, are key to the experience: everything is referential and diners often find themselves looking into other sections of the restaurant with Alice in Wonderland curiosity. Base colors are neutral — paint, marble, wood — but there are vibrant interruptions (a mustard-and-gray striped ceiling, lime-green accents, crystal chandeliers) that manifest a vision that has always harmonized ritual and innovation. 


Pizza margarita with pomodoro, fresh herbs, two cheeses and extra virgin olive oil. Photography by Angel Tucker

No one would argue that the heart of Al Forno is Italian, but there’s something uniquely American about Al Forno’s trajectory. Emerson demanded a revolution against the status quo and, decades later, there’s still no other restaurant that continues to unveil itself, even to veteran diners. “Oh, see! They’ve got your duck legs,” says one woman, reassuringly, to her spouse. “But habanero sausage!” he responds. “That could really wake me up.” It’s true that the staples of the menu — grilled pizza, pasta, steak — are familiar to anyone who eats. But the manner in which they’re delivered, a paradox of robust delicacy, is the manifesto that drives the kitchen. 

It’s not just that no one did grilled pizza before Germon and Killeen; it’s that no one does it as well now. Often an exercise in excess, Al Forno’s pizza ($21.95) remains a study in almost inconceivable restraint. The dough is stretched so thin that it becomes something close to a cracker, barely covered with pomodoro, the barest sprinkle of cheese and a veritable salad of scallions. The dish is simple, but if it were simple to make, we’d see more of it outside these walls.  

Part of the experience of eating at Al Forno is to travel back to the point of origin; it remains one of the only restaurants to make desserts to order. But it also serves as a bridge between residents and the rest of the culinary world. There are plenty of Italian kitchens in the state, but none that have processed Italy through a prism that’s part art school and part Hephaestus. Al Forno’s menu remains forged by heat: Whether the dish is wrapped in a molten cauldron of cheese (like the baked pasta) or charred into the very essence of fire (see the grilled chicken), this is a house that manages to use nearly primitive cooking elements to produce food that embodies a sweeping and nuanced gastronomic culture. 

Though there are protein-driven entrees — the famous dirty rib-eye steak ($45.95), short ribs, clams and spicy sausage — it’s the full-tilt commitment to starch that defines Al Forno’s homage to humble food. Of course, the irregular and crackling Frisbees of grilled pizza dominate first courses. But every so often, you’ll see a duo of singed crostini ($15.95) come out draped in fresh mozzarella and roasted peppers, served with massive steak knives. 

Even more fundamental to the menu is the beets and frites, the quintessential study in synthesizing rustic fare and delicate presentation. Roasted beets are shaved into slices and served with a towering haystack of fries, glued together with a thin layer of lemony mayonnaise. Even an order of meatballs, served in a cast-iron pot of simmering sauce, looks convincingly like a full dinner. 


Sicilian ricotta and date tart.

Pasta, however, is the soul of the kitchen, mostly made in house and paired with everything from Bolognese to stewed beef to roasted clams. Oh, and cheese. The most enduring dish is a five-cheese baked pasta ($21.95) that manages to get all of Italy — its comfort, its creativity, its ambition — into a single burning bite. 

It’s not a complicated equation and it’s endured for decades; even though they now take reservations, diners still queue up when the doors open at 5 p.m. It’s the food, yes. But it’s as much about a design that understood, nearly half a century ago, that Providence is about rebuilding the past into a better and more intriguing present. Germon passed away in 2015 and yet his presence — and Killeen’s — is everywhere in the ageless space and its densely poetic spirit.

The allure is certainly manifest in the restaurant’s dessert course which, like the aesthetic, is a study in mixed media. The signature dish is a crostata ($20.95) made with so much butter that it elevates the cow, once again, to sacred animal status. Always paired with a tart seasonal fruit (apple, quince, plum, cranberry) and a lush anglaise, it captures what’s at the core of Al Forno: bucolic finesse. Every dessert has an element of opposition — even the chocolate bread pudding ($14.95), half crunchy, half soft, duels with a whipped cream so thick and cold that it could stand alone. 

And yet, nothing considers itself too precious, and if diners take themselves too seriously, dishes declare the tenor of the room by showing up in rustic form, bubbling over crocks and spilling onto plates. There may be something perpetually stylized in this South Water Street industrial building, but Al Forno’s legacy will always be built on the belief that dinner is an exercise in feeding the soul.

Al Forno

577 South Water St., Providence, 273-9760, alforno.com 

Open for dinner Tuesday–Saturday.

Cuisine: Rustic Italian.

Prices:  Appetizers: $10–$22; entrees: $22 (pasta)–$46 (dirty steak).

Must Get: Everyone’s already got a favorite; order your own or someone else’s.

Editor’s note: Can’t get enough? We dug into the archives and found this review of Al Forno from 1992 (and let’s just say, we’ve all come a long way since then!).


Al Forno, situated by the city’s waterfront, sits in a historic building with a warm brick interior. Photography by Angel Tucker