Any restaurant attempting
to cater to the theater crowd is inevitably walking a tightrope. On one hand, you need quick turnover to meet the rush of theatergoers, while on the other, you're still expected to deliver a high-quality product to the well-heeled crowd. It's no easy task, and one that's seen its share of casualties since the opening of the Hippodrome.
Forno (17 N. Eutaw St.,  873-9427,
), the latest to attempt this balancing act, has designed a smart menu to handle the rush, but ultimately the food could use some revisions to inspire the non-theater crowd to make the trek to that part of town.
The first thing we noticed on a recent visit was the stark design of the large space. Presented with a large tiled pizza oven and semi-open kitchen upon entry, we were led past a beautiful white-marble bar area-dimly illuminated by omnipresent old-school light fixtures-and into the dining room, which features tables constructed from wood repurposed from an Amish barn in Lancaster.
Refurbished arched windows separate the bar from the dining room, with colors in an inviting mix of earthy tans and reds. It adds up to a lovely place to enjoy a meal, which made it all the more disappointing that some of the food didn't show the same level of pop.
Our friendly and attentive server described the food as "coastal cuisine," inspired by Northern Italian open-oven cooking (
being Italian for oven) with a Chesapeake focus. Interested in what exactly that constituted, we dug in.
We started with homemade herbed bread ($3), and while we have a general problem with charging for bread, it was warm and fulfilling. Our in-house prepared charcuterie selections ($15 for three) included an understated and underseasoned chicken galantine, an excellent pork terrine, and-the star of the board-a ridiculously smooth chicken-liver mousse that had us jockeying for the last schmear of rich organ-y goodness.
A cup of the warm caponata ($6), a roughly chopped mix of sundried tomatoes, eggplant, and onions served in a lonely ramekin, didn't fare as well, as the flavor was too heavily influenced by the tomatoes and lacking all around. A better option was the whole grilled squid ($12). Atop a subtle yet spicy salsa verde and bed of swiss chard, the calamari was lightly charred, tender, and delicately delicious: evidence that chef Kris Sandholm's previous focus, at Starfish Brasserie in Bethlehem, Pa., was seafood.
Pizzas are made to order in a 700-degree brick oven, and while the dough (the heart of any pie) could use much more rise time-the crust was dense and thin-the flavors were mostly on point. The margherita ($12) included an impressively fresh trio of tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella. The funghi ($15) was a mix of mushrooms, slices of portabella, parmesan, and garlic that we found a bit greasy and lacking in mushroom earthiness. But the highlight was the carne ($16), a generous mix of duck confit, house-smoked bacon, roasted pork, crushed tomatoes, and asiago cheese that put us into smoked-out meat bliss.
Among the entrees, which ranged from $15 to $26, we started with the braised pork shoulder ($22), a combination of locally sourced pork and Olde Salt clams in a tomato bouillabaisse, accented with herbed garlic bread. While we found it odd the pork was cut into large cubes instead of left to fall apart on its own, it was cooked nicely, and its pairing with the salty clams worked well but not well enough to push the thin sauce into properly seasoned territory; an added punch of heat or pepper would have gone a long way.
The Moroccan spiced rabbit included a large bone-in piece of leg and thigh that rested on a layer of bright green broccoli rabe and green lentils. Moroccan seasoning can easily be overbearing, but we found it to be the perfect amount of spice, leaving just a hint of cardamom and cinnamon after each bite. And that garlicky broccoli rabe was, as we pronounced it, the shit. Combined with the perfectly al dente green lentils and a touch of stock, it stood out as a no-crumb-left-behind winner.
Desserts are made in-house, and we enjoyed the two that we tried. The lady fingers ($6-now, sadly, off the menu) consisted of four light sponge-cake sticks next to a mound of airy whipped cream and huge blackberries, presented so to encourage DIY construction-equal parts fun and sweet-tooth-soothing. A chocolate with coffee cream ($6) was made of two thick triangles of semi-hard dark "fudge" presented on a cup of lofty cream for dipping. Not cloyingly sweet, it was a nice way to finish the meal.
If Forno intends to be a theater restaurant and skate by on that crowd, they'll probably do just fine, but if they aim to be a destination spot for locals seeking out culinary drama, they'll need some more rehearsals.
Forno is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to Midnight.