Since they opened their doors in 1980, Johanne Killeen and the late George Germon’s kitchen at Al Forno have influenced a new wave of restaurants and dining experiences in Providence and beyond. Their kitchen has served as a training ground for some of the region’s finest chefs, including Executive Chef David Reynoso who has led the team at the beloved restaurant for over ten years. He shares with us his favorite dishes and how difficult it is to master them.
Where do you find your inspiration for cooking?
Food was very important at home. My dad has a little farm where I used to help out a lot, but I didn’t consider it a profession until I moved to the US at 15-years-old. I started as the dishwasher at Spiaggia in Chicago, then worked prep and finally started to cook. That’s when I took a trip to Italy. I spent time in Tuscany, and then up north to Milan. I ran out of money (I didn’t have that much) but it was a great experience. I was able to see and learn the culture of Italian people and their cooking. I fell in love with the food, the culture and the language.
What sort of kitchen practices have you maintained over the years?
How we cook at Al Forno is a kind of culture for us – a way of doing things. Many new cooks who start in our kitchen must re-learn not to cut corners. We hand-make the dough for the desserts and we slice the apples and fruits to order. It’s the same for the wood-grilled pizzas – we stretch the dough and grill it only after the order has come in. We have a reputation for consistency, and that sets us apart. The food [contains] simple ingredients, but the execution is difficult to master.
Is there one aspect of Italian cooking that is done exceptionally well at Al Forno?
Pastas are one of our specialties. We make them in-house and don’t partially-cook them. When you eat in Italy, you can feel the strength of the pasta; it’s beyond something you simply throw a sauce on top of. Our guests love the Pasta in the Pink. We had a special plate made just for this dish. Every single shell is laid flat and baked in a creamy, cheesy sauce. After we bake it, it’s nice and crispy on the top and soft and chewy on the bottom.
If you had to choose, what’s one of your favorite menu items?
I love the hand-churned ice cream. There’s just something about that process and technique that makes it special. You can try different ice cream shops, but you won’t find this type of ice cream because theirs is made with a machine. When you do it by hand, it melts in your mouth in a completely different way. It’s smoother and the flavors come out more naturally.
Have you branched out from strictly Italian-style cooking with any of your dishes?
Our crab cakes are a mix of New England and Italian style, but with Mexican inspiration, too. I salt and cure the crab for a couple days, then I wash and cook it Italian-style with onions and garlic and finish it with olive oil. Then we top the cake with a special avocado mixture, similar to a guacamole without tomatoes.
Tell us what it’s been like to work side-by-side with George and Johanne. They are local legends, after all.
We carry on George and Johanne’s way of cooking from when they first opened. My style of cooking is married to theirs’ – we naturally agree on keeping it simple. I remember years ago, before I started working at Al Forno, I cooked lunch for Johanne. I took some fresh cuts of fish, seared them to perfection, cut some fresh tomatoes and mixed them up with capers, olive oil, lemon juice and a little onion. It was so simple. Johanne told me, “This is exactly the cooking we want you to do for us.”George was very much a father figure to me. Most of all, he taught me to have patience, to be understanding of both the employees and customers.