By Marshall Slater
Il Fornetto is unique in that it joins only a handful of other establishments across the borough, which offer true waterfront dining. The dining room juts, literally, over the waters of Sheepshead Bay and day or night, winter or summer, the views and ambiance are spectacular. The water laps gently below you and the unlimited vistas offer a panorama of the boats, the waves, the wildlife and the not-so-distant cityscape of Manhattan Beach.
And, while the environment would more than justify a visit, it is secondary to the food, which is unabashedly traditional Italian dining, but with an emphasis on excellence of preparation, generous portions and first rate ingredients.
While Il Fornetto offers a most elegant night out, it should be noted that the dining room is a very welcoming place; the staff works quite hard and succeeds in going above and beyond, and genuinely enjoys making you the focus of their attention. Il Fornetto is as appropriate for celebrating very special times or impressing a date as it is for a family outing…and kids are welcomed, not merely tolerated.
The dining room is spacious and wide open with a high chalet ceiling and open wood cross beams. The wide tabletops are made up of lovely designer tiles and, above you, high paddle fans slowly twirl.
So settle back and enjoy the nice crusty bread dipped in a virgin olive-Balsamic and herb accompaniment and peruse the menu. Again, the emphasis is on tried and true crowd-pleasers, but executed in the kitchen with well above average skills.
Take for instance the Hot Antipasto, comprised of delicious buttery clams oreganata, which are so good you will be putting the cocktail fork aside and sucking each from its shell lest you miss any of the seasoned breadcrumb amalgam. The wonderfully tender eggplant oozes with mozzarella and almost liquid ricotta that blends into the vegetable, which itself boasts a butter soft skin all in a fine, thick red sauce. It is prepared, like many of the dishes, in the brick oven, which imparts its own addictive underscoring taste. Also on the platter are snappy jumbo shrimp plus excellent mushroom caps stuffed with a chopped mushroom and herb blend. Order the fried calamari and be treated to superbly tender rings in a delicious batter with a thick red dipping sauce.
A very refreshing alternative is the gorgonzola salad, made up of excellent baby spinach (no grit at all), thin slices of tart green apple, shaved almonds and creamy gorgonzola, all with a red wine vinaigrette.
Other options from the very diverse and pleasing menu include Oysters Rockefeller, baked with a spinach cream sauce; Clams Ripiene, Little Neck clams lightly breaded and brick-oven baked; In Bianco, which sees mussels and clams sautéed with garlic and fresh herbs; Mozzarella in Carrozza sees the cheese battered with tomato sauce studded with capers. The Caprese offers fresh rounds of mozzarella and tomato drizzled with pesto. There are also raw shellfish bar offerings, freshly shucked when ordered.
A very nice alternative, which takes complete advantage of the brick oven, is the vast selection of individual wood fired creative pizzas: the Margherita with whole milk mozzarella, fresh basil and a plum tomato sauce; Parmigiano with provolone, fresh mozzarella, sliced cherry peppers and shaved aged parmigiano and Fra Diavolo with a fresh marinara sauce, baby shrimp, scallions and spicy olive oil. The list continues with the Paesana, which uses the fresh mozzarella as a covering for mushrooms, prosciutto, chopped arugula and shaved parmigiano, or the Salsiccia, with grilled Italian sausage, sweet caramelized onions, fresh mozzarella, plum tomato sauce and ricotta. There is even a veggie pie, dubbed the Verdura, with grilled eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms and roasted peppers. Further customize the pies from a long list of toppings.
If you’re in the mood for something light, the kitchen obliges with eight different Panini sandwiches, from sliced steak to mixed vegetable, and grilled chicken and provolone to a chicken Caesar wrap.
You really should order a pasta dish. The Linguine alla Vongole is deceptively simple in its description, with an abundance of baby clams, which have first been steamed in fresh clam juice and then done with a little parsley, roasted garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Each clam is thoroughly immersed in this blending and it is hard not to lick the shells clean. It is really a most satisfying dish, as is the Fettuccine Compresso, a vegetarian affair of wonderful green and black olives, diced oven-roasted tomatoes, all tossed with fine virgin olive oil and then crowned with lots of freshly shaved slices of imported parmigiano cheese. The flavors all mesh flawlessly.
Other pasta selections to consider include the Penne Filetto with Italian bacon and caramelized onions; Cavatelli al Ragu, ricotta pasta, peas and a slow-cooked meat sauce with a touch of cream and ricotta; fresh pasta Mediterraneo, fettuccine in a vodka cream sauce with jumbo shrimp and scallops.
As for the main event, even though seafood gets the bias in the kitchen, entrées from land certainly compete nicely for your attention, as with the Pollo Campagnolo, a most hearty dish, which starts with seared boneless chicken done with olive oil and a splash of white wine, then combined with fresh mushrooms, and wonderful sweet Italian link sausages. The poultry becomes infused with the complementary tastes and the end result is a new favorite you will want to savor again. The Chicken Cardinale offers pan seared boneless breast topped with roasted peppers and fresh mozzarella; the Veal Carciofi is a scallopini creation with artichoke hearts in a butter shallot reduction and there is a grilled sirloin steak topped with mushrooms and onions.
One of the starring attractions from the waters is the Filet of Bronzini, a flaky and sweet white fish from the Mediterranean. It is done here gently grilled, charred with sweet cross hatching marks from the grill, and served with a medley of fresh vegetables and roasted potatoes on a platter with lemon and lime wheels. Other selections from the waters include Tilapia Almondine topped with toasted sliced almonds; Frittura di Pesce, a fried platter of sea scallops, jumbo shrimp, zucchini and potatoes with a tartar remoulade; Salmon Portofino is pan-seared with capers and sundried tomatoes, and then there is the indulgent Delizie del Mare for two, a veritable banquet of seafood including lobster tail, shrimp, clams, sea scallops and mussels in marinara sauce served over linguine. Salmon Senape sees the fish grilled and served with a citrus mustard dipping sauce.
Other temptations include the Grigliata Mista for two: grilled sliced sirloin steak, jumbo shrimp and chicken in a red wine reduction or the Pesce Dorato, bread crumb dusted and grilled jumbo shrimp, calamari and scallops. Plus, there are fresh lobsters done just about any way you want.
Finish the meal with the kitchen’s signature Apple Pizaetta, a sort of dessert pizza made from thinly-sliced apples on a pizza crust marinated with caramel amaretto and topped with vanilla gelato. The mini cannoli are dynamite and the Warm Chocolate Cake offers a real surprise as your fork breaks the exterior and warm chocolate sauce spurts from within, mixing with the vanilla ice cream.
Note that a big draw at Il Fornetto is their Prix Fixe Dinner, priced at $24.95 and available at all times during all restaurant hours (except only until 6 p.m. on Saturday). It includes choice of appetizer, a top of the line entrée (the list includes everything from lobster to a sirloin steak, Salmon Portofino to Chicken Campagnolo), plus one of the great house desserts including the homemade tirami su or the wonderful warm chocolate lava cake. There is also a price fixed lunch for $13.95 available noon – 4 p.m., Monday to Saturday.]
2902 Emmons Avenue, 718-332-8494
Hours: noon – 11 p.m., Monday-Thursday; until midnight on Friday and Saturday and from 12:30 – 11 p.m. on Sunday.
Most major credit cards are accepted.
There is always free parking and free valet parking Friday to Sunday. Parties are accommodated in a private room up to 120.Unique and expansive sports lounge with multiple wide screen televisions.