A meal at Il Forno, located behind the CVS on Princeton-Hightstown Road in West Windsor, is like taking a quick trip to Italy. As you step through the strip mall’s glass doors, you leave behind suburbia and are immediately teleported to a rustic Tuscan trattoria.
Owners Melissa Virgilio and Jeff Malloy, together with Melissa’s 11-year-old daughters Isabelle and Olivia Heilbronn, spent last summer transforming the location to match their vision. Melissa and Jeff stained the wood, and the girls walked on it with their cleats on to give it a weathered look. “It was a true labor of love,” enthuses Melissa. “This is our second home.” They were thrilled to open last October.
Melissa is a former reading specialist school teacher and stay-at-home mom. Jeff is the owner of Carmen’s, a Zagat-rated restaurant in Boston’s North End. They spend most of their time in West Windsor, where the girls attend school. Melissa and Jeff travel to Carmen’s once or twice a month to check on the restaurant.
As a stay-at-home mom, Melissa felt “there was no place to hang out in the area with any ambiance. No coffee shops or restaurants” that are not chains. It is her desire Il Forno become that place in town.
At least one of the owners is around at all times. Olivia and Isabelle come over after school to work on their homework and spend time together as a family. “We try to have dinner together as a family and keep some of the same things we did before opening the restaurant. We share parts of our day together. We keep normalcy,” explains Melissa. “The main difference is we have a bigger extended family.”
Melissa adds “I’ve never worked so hard in my life.” She is proud to pass along her work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit to her daughters. Recently the girls asked to expand the business to include a bakery. Instead, she gave them $30 to purchase supplies and sell their baked goods. The one daughter was excited when they earned their first $20 and wanted to spend it. The other daughter wanted to reinvest the money; she researched cupcake recipes and is learning ways to decorate them better.
Jeff brings more than 20 years of restaurant experience to the business. He created the recipes at Carmen’s and brought them to West Windsor. He continues to create new recipes and specials, and is in the kitchen much of the time while Melissa runs the front of the house. She uses her teaching skills to train staff.
“I came into the restaurant business as a diner,” explains Melissa. She has a certain set of expectations when it comes to being served and how the food is presented. “We are both very detail-oriented. We built a beautiful space, and we want everyone to have a great experience while they are here. We have given our souls to this restaurant. There isn’t anything like this in this vicinity. We want to make it what we wished we had.”
Il Forno serves a wide variety of Italian food. As their name (“the oven” in Italian) implies, they serve Neapolitan pizzas cooked in a traditional wood oven stove. After losing 35 pounds following The MAX of West Windsor program, Jeff added a variety of healthier foods to the menu, including vegetini — vegetables (squash, eggplant, and zucchini) with the shape and look of spaghetti, but without the carbs. Another popular item on the menu is vegetable lasagna layered with a chickpea puree in place of ricotta cheese, and thin slices of vegetables.
In addition to these vegetarian dishes, they also serve gluten-free pastas in the shape of various pastas including ravioli. All of their dishes, including the lasagna, are made to order.
Il Forno is BYOB. Please call 609-799-8822 to make a reservation.
Il Forno, 358 Princeton Hightstown Road, West Windsor. 609-799-8822, ilfornowestwindsor.com Hours: Monday: closed, Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 3 to 9 p.m.