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photo:B.A. Nilsson

All Fired Up
By B.A. Nilsson

Forno Toscano Bistro

541 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 581-2401. Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11:30-3, dinner Mon-Sat 5-9:30. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: Rustic (but Fancy) Italian

Entrée price range: $9 (Napoletana pizza) to $24 (bistecca alla fiorentina)

Ambiance: Chrome and glitz

Like its sister restaurant, Chianti, located at the other end of downtown Saratoga’s Broadway, Forno Toscano is a triumph of style. The name means “Tuscan oven,” and refers to the wood-fired model you can see in the back of the restaurant. According to owner David Zecchini, it’s where much of the traditional Tuscan meal is fired.

With the city of Florence as its cultural center, Tuscany boasts a high appreciation of art, so there’s also a kinship with the highly artistic mise en scène in the new Saratoga restaurant. What’s regarded as simple farmhouse cookery is served in a busy ambiance of sculptured metal and low-level lighting. Plate presentation is simple to the point of starkness, but there’s plenty elsewhere on which to feast the eyes.

Meanwhile, the food itself is the stuff of a hearty feast. Pasta! Meat! Plenty of wine! Not to mention tasty personal pizzas with whisper-thin crusts, and an assortment of salads with a variety of enhancements. If you visit for lunch, panini—those ubiquitous grilled sandwiches—populate the menu.

But there’s also a sense of disconnectedness. It’s my only complaint about the place, but it’s pervasive, so let’s get it out of the way now and then spend some time savoring the food.

During my first visit, my daughter and I arrived just before 5 PM and were seated in an alcove near the door. I assumed that we were given lunch menus because we’d arrived at the tail end of that meal, and thus could order something lighter and less expensive. And so we fashioned a course of courses. Ah, those dangerous assumptions!

No, our host had simply given us the wrong menus. Now, it’s entirely my fault that I returned the following day at 4 PM without first checking the hours. It was only then that I learned of lunch’s cessation at 3. “But take a walk,” the host advised. “Come back around quarter to five, sit down, we’ll take care of you.”

Returning promptly at that time, we were told to sit at the bar—until we reached the bar, where we were told to sit at a table near the bar because my kid is younger than 18. None of this reflects any wrongdoing whatsoever on the part of the restaurant, but it undermines one’s sense of well-being, that elusive quality so vital to inspiring repeat visits. Everyone working the floor needs to be on the same page.

During both visits, we watched the place fill early and quickly, and service took the predictable hit when that happened. Very few Capital Region restaurants have anything even approaching good service; most rest aurateurs put their money in the kitchen, in a chef, in décor, and then hire a few kids and turn them loose on the floor—and then, as is often whispered to me, blame the servers when customers complain.

The fact is, a good system is needed. Servers shouldn’t be huddled in corners conversing; customers shouldn’t wait (as I did) for 10 minutes after the entrée plates have been cleared before seeing their server again. And where was the host when this happened?

As I mentioned, the lunch menu features a list of sandwiches ($8-$9) featuring homemade bread (rosemary foccacia, for instance) and components such as spinach, sausage, mozzarella, flank steak and more.

A pizza, although described as a single serving, is enough to feed two of anyone (except teenagers). The pizza list is identical on the lunch and dinner menus, but the lunch pizzas are two to three dollars cheaper. I sampled the dinner-sized (or at least -priced) Calabrese ($10), which you could mistake for a pepperoni pie, except that the sausage is drier and has a much snappier flavor. And there’s nothing like a thin crust coming out of a wood-fired oven.

Dinner starters include an excellent, oversized plate of fried calamari ($9) that’s more about the seafood than the bread, thank goodness; it’s so nicely seasoned and tender that you’ll avail yourself of the accompanying tomato sauce but little.

Bruschetta is a Tuscan mainstay, but I lament its absence from this menu not at all. In its place is focaccia ai formaggi ($8), a homemade bread stuffed with four cheeses (grana padano, mozzarella, fontina and, providing the dominant flavor, gorgonzola). Again, it’s a big enough portion for at least two people.

Dinner-sized salads ($8-$9) can be ordered with chicken, flank steak, pancetta, roasted vegetables, or just fresh tomatoes and mozzarella.

When you get the good stuff, pancetta is a flavor marvel. I convinced my daughter to try spaghetti alla carbonara ($12), with its classic mix of pancetta, egg and cheese (here grana padano). She went nuts for it, and it was all I could do to get enough of a sample to judge the result.

The béchamel-rich lasagne ($10) has more layers of pasta than I’ve ever seen in the mix before, but I can’t fault the flavors, with a strong meat component adding richness. And it’s baked and served in boxlike black bowls, a novel and appropriate presentation.

So highly did our first-night server praise the rack of lamb ($24) that it became my next-visit entrée. As promised, it’s the entire rack, and thus far too much meat. I would have paid the same amount for four chops, especially if they were sliced and handsomely arrayed on the plate. It’s a delicious preparation, sauce-free (Tuscan style) but rich with a mixture of herbs, served with roasted potatoes and a sauté of broccoli rabe.

Although I would have enjoyed dipping biscotti in a dessert wine, we stayed in a Tuscan mood during one of our visits by heading into town for a stop at Eugenio’s Café Gelato (419 Broadway), where a scoop of chocolate and a double espresso hit the spot.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Professor Moriarty’s (430 Broadway) is holding a wild game dinner tonight (Thursday), with a menu consisting of such unusual items as appetizer preparations of ostrich and alligator, and an entrée selection that includes moulard duck, sliced buffalo sirloin and wild salmon, as well as a mixed grill of wild boar, pheasant and venison, all prepared by executive chef Jim Kelly. For more info and reservations, phone the restaurant at 587-5981. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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* E-mail address not required to submit your feedback, but required to be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.

What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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