Forno, a great-looking new restaurant and wine bar located across the street from the Hippodrome Theatre, opened as quietly as it could in late February just as the blockbuster musical "The Book of Mormon" pulled into town.
Emina Dukic, who co-owns Forno with her husband, Bryan Noto, has said she wants Forno to be not only an amenity for the theater crowd but for residents of an emerging west-side neighborhood in and around the sprawling campus of the University of Maryland.
This community already has an excellent tavern, The Alewife, and a scattering of small eateries, but it lacked a certain something — a sophisticated gathering spot for catching up with friends over a good glass of wine.
Now it has one. Forno is chic as can be, with a smartly integrated mix of the old and new, the contemporary and reclaimed.
The Italian word "forno" carries the suggestion of the hearth, and the nicest thing about Forno is how warm and welcoming it feels.
Forno creatively uses old church and convent windows to divide the interior's various spaces — the front dining area, the cozy wine bar and a glowing hearth where chefs tend Forno's white-brick pizza oven.
Pennsylvania barn wood has been put to use at Forno both as decorative trim and as table-tops, which are set, for dinner, with cloth napkins and small terra cotta pots filled with aromatic herbs and "captain's china" salvaged from ocean liners.
In the main dining area, which runs lengthwise along the Eutaw Street windows, a neutral backdrop of white walls and slate flooring is softened by the crushed-berry upholstery on a long banquette.
It all forms the perfect backdrop for a wonderful dinner, and Forno's menu is an engaging arrangement of shared bites, small plates, main courses and pizza. But we struggled to find something we truly loved, and there were some dishes we plain didn't like. There were issues both of conception and of execution, and it's hard to come up with a quick remedy.
The small bites had small problems. A hunk of cauliflower, served with a salsa verde, wasn't roasted well enough, but an artichoke was overly grilled and its petals yielded precious little. A serving of white anchovies on toast felt anemic, even for a bite.
A whole grilled squid sounded like a good, solid appetizer, but this turned out to be a large kale salad with bits of underseasoned squid. Cornichons wrapped in bacon-cured duck breast were also presented within an obscuring mixed green salad. From the brick oven, pizza with topped with assorted mushrooms needed more seasoning and a crispier crust.
Our attention started to flag, and the entrees did nothing revive it. I'm fine with the trend toward smaller protein sizes. But Forno's handling of a Virginia rockfish entree, in which a very small fillet was perched over a very large serving of chorizo hash, felt seriously out of balance.
The proportions were better on other entrees — a chicken liver ragout served over pasta and a smoked half-chicken — but the flavors weren't pronounced in either dish, and we lost interest in them quickly. Only a yellowfin tuna entree was actively disagreeable, with a frozen-over taste to the tuna.
From a short dessert menu, we tried a pudding-like creme brulee, a lackluster cream puff and a rich chocolate bar that we liked well enough.
The food was disappointing, but I'd hate to see Forno get the cold shoulder. We had a very good time here, and I'm encouraged by the obvious care that's gone into creating an uplifting atmosphere and an affordable West Coast-focused wine list, too.
We took a quick look at the handsomely proportioned side dining room and the wine bar itself, which looks like a lovely perch for sharing charcuterie and cheese plates with theater friends or neighbors.
At least in the old days, the producers of big musicals would try out a show on the road before letting New York audiences lay eyes on it. Baltimore was a popular tryout town, and audiences here had a reputation for being tough but fair.
Ultimately the dining public will decide if Forno is what it wants. But I hope they give it some time.
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 17 N. Eutaw St., downtown
Contact: 443-873-9427, fornobaltimore.com
Open: Daily 11:30 a.m. to midnight
Prices: Appetizers: $8-$12; entrees: $15-26
Food: Contemporary American cuisine
Service: Polite and informed
Parking/accessibility: Street parking at meters and paid lots
Children: No children's menu
Special diets: Servers will make recommendations, and the kitchen is prepared to make accommodations.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine throughout the small dining room, with quiet music playing. There are two TVs at the wine bar, and an additional TV, visible from the dining room, near the entrance, all with their sound turned down.
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[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]