Loved, hated, or ignored, Al Forno (577 S. Main St, Providence 401-273-9760) is the most famous restaurant in Providence. Opened in 1980, Al Forno started out in the tiny Steeple Street space now occupied by New Rivers, and moved early on to its South Main location. A mix of locals , eastbound travelers and visitors descend on Al Forno every night. No reservations for parties under six usually means a long wait unless you dine Florida-oldster style (get there when it opens - 5:00 on weekdays, 4:00 on Saturday) or arrive relaxed at 8:30. There are two floors inside (each with a bar) as well as an outdoor bar and leafy patio. You should know that you may have to put your name on both indoor and outdoor lists when you arrive if you're looking for the first seats available. My favorite room is 1st floor inside but under vines on a sultry night is nice too (warning: if you are a total country bunny and can't deal with highway buzz forget the patio) .
People have strong emotions about the place, and I think a lot of that emotion is easy to trace.
Let's take the bad night. There's the 70 minute wait, the issue of the Dark & Stormy made with ginger ale, the annoying acolyte taking your orders, the a) service so speedy you know you're being rushed, or b) service so slow all fun is draining fast from your outing, the ridiculously high prices for appetizers and desserts, the toss & tumble cheater's lasagne which is deconstruction gone nuts, and the chocolate cake disappointingly bitter and dry. True, you loved most everything else. But really, there was no atoning for that 70 minute wait.
And a good night. You have drinks at the bar, maybe 30, 40 minutes, then head in to a table for four on the first floor. One of the specials is grilled pizza with pumpkin. You decide to share this and a buffalo mozzarella salad for appetizers. The salad is delicious; the pizza is so good you want another. Orders of sweet potato agnolotti with black olive puree, roasted duck leg and sausage, grilled fish and lamb follow. Shared fruit crisps and tarts are the finish. Satisfaction is evident. The wine selection worked. The timing went well. The waiter was clueless but not dreadful. Everybody happy.
I admit, Al Forno usually works for me. I think they deserve to be famous for the grilled appetizer pizzas and the made-to-order desserts. But I understand the complaints. The staff can be haughty and I can't help you there, but it is possible to work the timing or just make sure you have six people.
If you get a chance, try one of their special dinners. Last fall they had a night featuring women who farmed - you met the women, dined on their products (with all the wine pairings done for you) and, seated at long tables, you met new people. A great time. And by Al Forno standards, it was a price performer.