We often look to New York or Philadelphia for creative and sophisticated dining. But there are also a handful of places in central New Jersey, and we can add one to the list: Il Forno, at the intersection of Route 571 and Southfield Road. Tucked into a retail center, kattycorner to McCaffrey’s, the unprepossessing facade hides a welcoming, funky farm/industrial-themed space of wood, exposed brick, and granary chutes. Open only six weeks, Il Forno has already become a bustling eatery and the food proves its popularity.
My friend and I had hoped to catch an early meal on a Saturday and arrived before 6 p.m. While we were able to be seated immediately, we could see why reservations even at that hour would now be wise. There are tables for two, four, and more with countertop height dining along the back near the open kitchen. The space is nominally divided into the trattoria for sit-down meals and the cafe for take-out of the brick oven pizza, panninis, soups etc., but for dinner the entire space is well used.
Chef Jeff Malloy comes to us from the celebrated Carmen’s in the North End of Boston. His extensive travels in Italy have given him an instinct for the cuisine that produces sophisticated variations on well-known dishes. We both ordered pasta and were very pleasantly surprised by the presentation. I had the Fall Risotto, full of savory-sweet butternut squash, tender rice, and pan seared scallops. ($27). My friend had the butternut squash lasagna in a rich white sauce ($21). Adding to the pleasant surprise was the portion size. Expecting the usual gargantuan serving sized for a family of 17, each of our main courses was perfectly sized to complete without feeling stuffed.
A sample of other entrees include half an oven roasted chicken with wild mushroom ragu over pappardelle ($22), marinated grilled lamb loins with lemon over polenta ($30), or pan seared duck breast in a pomegranate reduction with sweet potato puree and sauteed spinach ($28). The Il Forno flatbread pizza of caramelized onions, gorgonzola, figs, and candied walnuts ($16) will be a definite choice next time.
Small plates offer nibbles such as roasted golden beets ($6) and a delicious twist on nachos: house baked potato chips covered lightly with fontina cheese and spinach — again a surprising taste that is perfect to share and does not overwhelm you prior to the main course. Steamed Wellfleet clams ($16), calamari and shrimp fritti ($13), and a plentiful salumi board ($16) are just a few of the other appetizers.
Among the small plates, the sophistication also shows in dishes such as marinated mushrooms in smoked bacon and sherry vinegar ($6) and roasted eggplant with currants and aged balsamic ($6). The small plates and appetizers can easily provide rich and varied grazing.
Lest we forget dessert, we devoured a warm pear tart, presented on puff pastry rather than pie crust, making it a perfect light ending. ($7). Other selections include tiramisu and homemade cannoli.
The website also describes an added service called the Max Menu, a selection of foods created with wellness in mind that allows diners to stay on track with diets while dining out. Prices range from $30 for the seafood Brodetto with its mixed seafood in a garlic, fennel, and tomato broth to a colorful vegetable lasagna of squashes, eggplant, and spinach for $19. While this was not mentioned to us by our server, this perpetual dieter hopes that these offerings are always available.
While the menu does not overtly cater to children, they are definitely welcome. This BYOB venue is not too loud to preclude conversation even when full, so it is a definite vote for a date night or dinner with friends. And blessedly there was not a single television in sight — a treat that puts Il Forno toward the head of the pack. Fine dining, good service, and conversation with friends, after all, is the point of a night out. There is ample parking in the shopping center lot.
Il Forno gleefully ignores the cliches of Italian cuisine, so expect an eye-opening meal. From overhearing snatches of conversation from other diners, it is clear that this is already a favorite among area foodies.
Il Forno, West Windsor Village, 358 Princeton Hightstown Road, West Windsor. Open Tuesdays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sundays 3 to 9 p.m. www.ilfornowestwindsor.com. 609-799-8822.