There’s a good reason why grilled pizza—dough stretched thin and blackened over an open flame—has yet to become a national phenomenon. Even at its best, it remains an acquired regional taste (particular to Providence), neither as nuanced as Neapolitan style nor as irresistibly gooey as the thin-crust New York or deep-dish Chicago pies. The grilled pizzas at the new Fornino Park Slope—slim and crisp as crackers—aren’t likely to win many converts.
The unfortunate renditions are the work of Michael Ayoub, a pizza pioneer whose first Fornino, specializing in Neapolitan pies, opened in Williamsburg in 2003. In recent years, that pizzeria has been eclipsed by a notable crop of competitors. Rather than reassert himself in a crowded field, Ayoub decided to try something new at his second, cavernous Fornino in Park Slope, the very space that housed the long-shuttered Cucina, where he first made his mark as a chef.
His aren’t the first grilled pies in New York. Ayoub’s “Pizza Vinny Scotto”—topped with four cheeses, spicy salami and roasted-pepper aioli—pays homage to the real trailblazer in the field, who learned his craft at Al Forno in Providence. (Though he passed away in 2007, Scotto’s restaurant, Gonzo, still serves grilled pizza). Despite the mix of vibrant toppings, the crust is so lackluster, the pie falls flat. Another, topped with mozzarella and clams, delivers a lesson in why seafood and dairy are rarely a good match—the rapidly coagulating cheese clashed disastrously with the briny bivalves.
There are about 17 pies to choose from, plus dishes that sprawl across a half dozen savory categories. The bounty seems to invite family-style gorging—and so does the setting. The enormous restaurant is a bizarre hybrid—with snapshots of bygone Brooklyn evoking an old-school pizzeria, while opulent glass sculptures by Ayoub himself (an accomplished glassblower) offer a dissonant upscale note.
From the long list of antipasti there was perfectly decent—and perfectly boring—grilled asparagus, served at room temperature with shaved Parmesan. Chunky eggplant caponata was tasty enough, but just as straightforward—studded with whole green and black olives.
With other dishes, Ayoub seems set on recapturing the glory of his Cucina years, when he helped pioneer a new era of dining in Park Slope. But his creative impulses too often miss the mark. “Grilled saffron risotto ravioli,” the most deranged innovation of the many pasta dishes, didn’t end up tasting like much, the crisped ravioli shell muffling the creamy risotto inside. A wan chicken sausage stuffed with Taleggio and apricots was overwhelmed by pungent cheese. Skate wing, breaded and fried like veal milanese, turned out to be a much better idea—inspired in its simplicity—with a lemony salad of tomatoes and arugula.
Experimentation didn’t make it to the dessert course. The requisite tiramisu and the panna cotta were on the menu, along with doughnuts, cannoli and a lemon tart. While the tiramisu—a huge portion in an absurd martini-glass vessel—was fine and fluffy, the dense lemon tart—showered in powdered sugar—was sickly sweet.
Despite Fornino’s shortcomings, Ayoub seems to have been welcomed back to the Slope, doing brisk, happy business. But the area’s food options have improved considerably in the nearly ten years since he left. With much better restaurants nearby, there aren’t many good reasons for his old fans to keep coming back.
Drink this: The new Fornino celebrates beer with a long list of local and international brews. Alongside crisp Kelso Pilsner and lemony Brooklyner Weisse on draft, you’ll find frothy Bavik lager from Belgium (each $6).
Eat this: Caponata, skate-wing milanese, tiramisu
Sit here: The seats around the bar and the wall of windows are the most inviting.
Conversation piece: Grilled pizza is said to have originated in the 1980s at Al Forno in Providence, where Vinny Scotto, among others, learned how to make it.