From the mind of Ash Aziz—restaurateur of the Circa Restaurant Group—comes the newest member of his successful eateries, Il Forno Pizzeria. There’s no doubt readers are familiar with at least one of Circa’s culinary champions—whether it’s longtime downtown favorite Circa 1922, to its coastal-centric cousin Boca Bay, or either of Osteria Cicchetti’s two locations Aziz’s group is renown for its consistent medley of hot spots. Il Forno, with its main attraction being a nearly 900-degree wood-burning oven, popped up recently within the newly developed Point at Barclay shopping center, near the intersection at 17th Street Ext. and Independence Boulevard.
Some may think Il Forno is still under wraps; they would be wrong. When I strolled in on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon, the dining room was packed. Dark and warm, without being stuffy, I noticed the space is thoughtfully decorated, with the essence of a modernized city-style bistro coming to light. The wallpapering of Italian wines, canned tomatoes, preserved lemons, and pickled this-and-that certainly adds to its eclectic vibe. For a few cocktails at the bar or a big family meal, the inside atmosphere is perfect. For a quick lunch on a breezy October day, it doesn’t get better than the airy outdoor patio.
While scanning the pizza-oriented menu, I noticed a wide array of epicurean ingredients. In a big city, beautiful, creamy, slightly funky Italian cheese like taleggio or even a cured pork product like speck isn’t too big of a surprise. Here in Wilmington, chefs are just beginning to expose us to more artisanal ingredients. For that, I say grazie! Tuscan native Chef Roberta Campani (of locally loved La Gemma Bakery) is guiding us on a new kind of culinary cruise at Il Forno. So far, I want to kiss the cook.
The charcuterie and cicchettes (a style of small shared plates) beckoned my appetite, but I was on a mission to keep it somewhat simple and try out several classic dishes I knew a mangia mastermind like Campani would knock out of the park. A short sampler menu of lunch specials landed on my table, and my courteous server walked me through them before quickly going over Il Forno’s frontrunners. I already planned on testing the Caesar—something I never miss at an Italian restaurant—and the margherita pizza, which would serve as the basis for how I’d rate the rest of the experience. For just $10, I snagged both items as a special. Along with a spoonful of freshly grated Parm and a tiny bowl of crushed red pepper flakes all to myself it was the deal of the freakin’ day.
When it comes to classically simple Neapolitan pie, if the ingredients are less than superior, the result can be a let down. From the first folded slice to the last, I was brimming with bliss over the balanced, delicate flavor of Il Forno’s margherita. Each layer tasted exactly as it should: smoky, crackly, paper-thin crust with a gentle, dusty residue of char and flour imprinted on my hands. It was impossible to decide whether to lick my fingers or just go in for another bite. Tough day at work. The mozzarella tasted light; the thin layer of sauce had a subtle hint of richness without being overpoweringly acidic or robust; and the cherry tomatoes burst with juiciness. Some of the fresh basil leaves were tucked under the melted cheese every so sneakily, so each bite had a fragrant, herby note. I would have liked a good amount more salad (maybe in a bowl instead of tossed alongside the pizza), but the sharp shreds of Parmigiano-Reggiano and the creamy dressing made for a refreshing mix and a successful Caesar.
As Il Forno is all about its epic oven, I knew sampling another variety of pizza wasn’t the worst idea. To cancel out one more round of bread and cheese, I opted for a larger version of the arugula salad. The greens generously were portioned and topped with chopped red and golden beets, grapes, candied pecans, and grilled ricotta salata. For anyone unfamiliar: The pressed, white semi-firm cheese is dry and salty and typically found crumbled into salads. Il Forno’s menu said their ricotta salata—cut into smooth, thin white triangles—was grilled, but I didn’t taste much smoke (or flavor at all—though this isn’t a cheese known to stand out). The tangy sherry vinaigrette paired nicely with the peppery arugula, earthy beets, and fruity mouthful of sliced grapes.
I was satisfied fully in Marinaraland, so I moved onto the white pies. The gorgonzola and apple had me at figs. At this point, I noticed the menu was the equal assortment of meat and vegetarian items. The pizzas celebrate toppings like oyster mushrooms and eggplant as much as they do sausage and pancetta. I asked for prosciutto to top my mozzarella, gorgonzola, walnut, and fig pizza. The pork would have blended into the pizza better had it been more thinly shaved,, but, still, it added a salty zip to the ripe, pungent bleu cheese and the thin, tart green apple slices. My only suggestion would be marinating the dried figs so they’re not just plopped on top. But I’m just splitting hairs here.
The menu wraps up with a thoughtful selection of mains, which my server informed me featured house-made pasta. I couldn’t leave without the Parmigiana di melanzane for dinner, but unfortunately, the pasta left without me (or something like that). I know better, I should have checked the bag—but then again, they should have, too. Despite my runaway carbs, the layered eggplant was light-as-air and smothered in salty, decadent mozzarella and topped with juicy red sauce. Though I can’t report on the noodles for now, I think it’s pretty clear I’ll be back for more.