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A weekly profile on a favorite New England dish.

Providence, RI: Al Forno's Other Greatest Hit: Free-Form Tarts

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A few bites into the caramelized pumpkin crostada. [Photographs: Elizabeth Bomze]

Al Forno's grilled pizza needs no introduction. Thin, char-marked, and topped with bright-tasting tomato sauce, fruity olive oil, and crisp scallion curls, it's the most delicious—and most lucrative—accidental invention chef/owners Johanne Killeen and George Germon could have hoped for.

What don't seem to get much chatter are the restaurant's desserts, particularly the free-form tarts. Killeen and Germon run three or four of them at a time, filling the same ultra-flaky tart dough (flour, sugar, salt, water, and lots of butter) with a variety of produce: apples, peaches and raspberries, plums—and during the fall months, sugar pumpkins.

According to the recipe (printed in the couple's cookbook, Cucina Simpatica), the caramelized pumpkin crostada is the restaurant's answer to pumpkin pie. To burn off moisture and concentrate its flavor, they start by roasting the pumpkin until it's soft, then scoop it from its flesh and toss it in a skillet with browned butter and caramelized sugar. When the mixture cools, the caramel-covered pumpkin pieces are scraped into the tart shell, and, following a classic free-form tart approach, the pastry is pulled up over the edges and pleated, leaving a crater-sized steam vent in the center.

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If pies and rustic pastries are your thing, this is the dessert for you. The pumpkin is soft (but not mushy) and its flavor is concentrated and enhanced by the butter and sugar. The dough bakes up unbelievably crisp and flaky (note how fork causes crust to shatter), and the flavors are simple and clean, thanks to the omission of the spice cabinet. And although the accompaniments aren't especially creative—crème anglaise, caramel sauce, and whipped cream—they are perfect.

Two things to know about dessert at Al Forno: Just about everything is made to order, which means you have to put in your decision along with your entrée—a pretty clever business move, I've always thought, to take the dessert order before customers have a chance to fill up on the rest of the meal. Second, most of the items are built for two. That might mean compromising on a choice with your dining companion(s), which could bring trouble; their ice creams are also not to be missed. The upside is that sharing a dessert will soften the tart's sticker shock ($19.95). A little. (Actually, I've never been bowled over by anything other than the pizza and desserts, so I tend to stick with those to keep costs relatively low.)

Al Forno

577 S. Main Street, Providence, RI 02903 (map)
401-273-9760; alforno.com

About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Associate Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for various Boston-area publications.

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